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Plans to change Highway Code for self-driving cars announced

Date: 20 April 2022   |   Author: Sean Keywood

Planned changes to the Highway Code to allow for the operation of autonomous vehicles on UK roads have been announced by the government.

The updated code will outline how, while travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way when they are prompted to, such as when they approach motorway exits.

Another planned change will allow drivers to view content unrelated to driving on in-car display screens while a self-driving system is operational, although mobile phone use in these circumstances will still be outlawed, with the government citing research showing this poses a greater risk of distraction.

The government said its announcement followed a public consultation, which found the majority of respondents were "broadly supportive" of its proposed changes.

The government said it was continuing to develop a full legal framework for self-driving vehicles, and that these would need to undergo rigorous testing and meet stringent standards before being approved for road use.

The planned Highway Code changes follow the government's announcement last year that automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) could be the first permitted example of automated driving technology. Such systems would allow a vehicle to drive itself in a single lane at up to 37mph, while maintaining the ability to return control easily and safely to the driver when required.??

The government expects to have a full regulatory framework in place to allow the widespread deployment of the technology by 2025.

Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said: "This is a major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles, which will revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable.?? 

"This exciting technology is developing at pace right here in Great Britain and we're ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when it takes to our roads. 

"In doing so, we can help improve travel for all while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain's place as a global science superpower."??

Reacting to the government's announcement, RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding said: "The Highway Code has been updated a number of times in recent years to reflect the rapidly changing transport world we live in, and these latest additions will help us all understand what we must and must not do as we move forward to an environment where cars drive themselves.

"The final part of the jigsaw is to ensure these amendments are widely communicated to, ?and understood by,? vehicle owners. Vehicle manufacturers and sellers will have a vital role to play in ensuring their customers fully appreciate the capabilities of the cars they buy and the rules that govern them."

Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes said: "Amending the Highway Code to reflect the pace of technological change will help clarify what motorists can and can't do when a self-driving feature is engaged, so promoting its safe use.

"The technology could be available in the UK later this year and, with the right regulations in place, consumers are set to benefit from safer, more efficient journeys while the UK will strengthen its position as a global leader in the deployment of self-driving technology."

Thatcham Research chief research strategy officer Matthew Avery said: "This is another notable landmark on our journey towards safe automated driving in the UK. Education is a key enabler of safe adoption, and as such we welcome the announcement's focus on ensuring that drivers understand their legal obligations behind the wheel of any vehicle described as having 'self-driving capability'.

"Although automation will ultimately make our roads safer, accidents will still occur. Therefore, data must be recorded that shows who was in control at the time of a collision, however minor, and this data must be openly accessible to all stakeholders, not only the carmakers."

Avery added that the question of who would pay when an automated vehicle crashed remained unclear.

He said: "Carmakers and insurers will work together to handle claims where the vehicle is proven to be in self-driving mode and while Mercedes recently announced that it will accept liability when its Drive Pilot automated system is engaged, the provision of data will be vital to making sense of collisions and ensuring that legal wrangling does not put a brake on adoption.

"As a clear communication to the consumer, the announcement's focus on the driver's legal responsibilities is important, especially when it comes to taking back control from the system. This is an area of risk and it's important that drivers are aware that they must remain engaged and be ready to resume the driving task at any time.

"We are also pleased to see that the proposed changes will not permit mobile phone use, and instead only allow use of the vehicle's infotainment system - which means the self-driving system can issue a warning as required and bring the driver back into the loop promptly."