Self-driving cars on UK roads in 2021. What’s the latest?

self-driving cars
Drivers could let their cars take the strain as soon as 2021 (Picture iStock/Scharffsinn86)

Not bothering learning to drive because a self-driving car will do the work for you? Looking forward to checking social media on your smartphone or messaging your mates legally while at the wheel?

The time when you’ll be able to do both these is edging nearer but there’s still some way to go. Read on to find out where the UK is at now with autonomous or self-driving cars.

Is the law on self-driving cars changing?

For 2021, the government wants to legalise the use of automated lane keeping technology on cars. These systems are already present on some models and enable the car to steer itself while staying in its lane. But currently for automated lane keeping to work, the driver must keep their hands on the steering wheel.

The change in law would see car makers launch models where lane-keeping systems don’t disengage if drivers take their hands off the wheel. It would enable cars to drive themselves for extended periods of time, possibly at speeds up to 70mph.

The government is also asking whether it should legally define vehicles with lane keeping systems as automated. This would make the technology provider rather than the driver responsible for the car’s safety when the system is engaged.

self-driving cars
This scenario where the driver is asleep probably won’t be allowed for a few years (Picture iStock/Metamorworks)

Where are we with self-driving cars?

Currently you could test a self-driving car on UK roads perfectly legally. But you must fulfill certain conditions. There must be a driver inside or outside the vehicle who is ready to take back control. The vehicle must be roadworthy and appropriate insurance must be in place.

Anyone can use a self-driving car

In anticipation of self-driving technology being perfected, it is legal for anyone to use what are officially known as ‘automated vehicles’ on public roads.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 allows this. It says an ‘automated vehicle’ is one that drives itself. It defines it as: “Operating in a mode in which it is not being controlled, and does not need to be monitored, by an individual.” At the moment, the government hasn’t designated any ‘automated vehicles’ under AEVA 2018. That will probably change in 2021.

Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes said: “Automated technologies for vehicles, of which automated lane keeping is the latest, will be life-changing, making our journeys safer and smoother than ever before and helping prevent some 47,000 serious accidents and save 3900 lives over the next decade.”

What about self-driving car insurance?

How insurance will work with self-driving cars has until recently been unclear. AEVA states that where a car is driving itself, the insurer is responsible – assuming the car is insured. But again, the car needs to be designated an ‘automated vehicle’.

The owner will be liable if they haven’t insured the vehicle. If driver negligence causes the accident, perhaps using the car in automated mode when it isn’t suitable, the owner will be liable.

AEVA doesn’t discuss manufacturer liability. But if the car’s electronics go wrong and cause an accident, it’s likely the owner will be able to seek compensation through consumer protection laws.

Keeping automated vehicles safe

A lot of drivers are concerned that self-driving cars might fall victim to hackers. To ensure automated vehicles are secure, the government and industry have invested £1.5 million in the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV). This is working on cyber security to ensure that cars can’t be hacked by third parties for illegal reasons.

9 comments on “Self-driving cars on UK roads in 2021. What’s the latest?

  1. Eric Hayman 22/09/2020 7:49 AM

    It is said were the tobacco plant discovered today, making cigarettes from it would be banned on health grounds. How ‘healthy’ are self-driving road vehicles?

  2. chris owen 22/09/2020 11:26 AM

    Healthy until it kills you or someone else

    • Andrew Davidson 30/11/2020 8:18 AM

      If it is safer then a human driver?

  3. Charles Parker 10/10/2020 10:15 PM

    Soon it won’t be just self-driving cars but self-driving vans, lorries, buses, farm vehicles, construction site vehicles and so forth. Many thousands of driving jobs will be lost. Rapid advances in AI driven systems will make half the world’s workforce redundant, the World Economic Forum is predicting, by 2025. It won’t be just blue collar jobs: many white collar jobs will be lost too affecting doctors, architects, bankers, lawyers, teachers et al. We are on the verge of a new industrial revolution with massive socio-economic consequences.

  4. Nigel Foster 27/11/2020 9:02 PM

    Would it be hacker safe? We wouldn’t want to be where we don’t want to be.0

  5. John Wright 28/11/2020 2:43 PM

    My worry is local weather conditions. Drivers quickly and automatically adjust speed etc when there’s a sudden hazard due to fog, rain, sleet, snow etc. In snow conditions I’ve experienced my sat-nav keep telling me to turn onto an A road, when on a dual carriageway or Motorway etc which is relatively free of snow, but side roads aren’t. I doubt that a vehicle set to drive itself, then during the journey going into a snow storm, would adapt driving and route as efficiently and safely as a human.

  6. Colin 30/11/2020 8:29 AM

    Self driving car is driving down the road when a dog runs out in front of it – does the car swerve left onto the pavement and run down the mother with her orange, swerve right into the path of an oncoming car or carry straight on and kill the dog? How does it know it is a dog sand not a human. Who programmes the car’s response…..

    • Cai 22/01/2021 2:12 PM

      Professionals I’m sure but theses moral dilemmas will most likely be solved as the car would see the dog before and determine it’s risk and slow down before the dog even gets on to the road. These would be considered nothing more than a reaction if a human was behind the wheel but a self driving car is much more prepared to minimalize casualties the car would be able to break hard swerve perfectly and avoid all collisions at the same time.

  7. simon beard 12/12/2020 10:27 AM

    I hate driving alone for long distances on motorways so the idea of a self-driving car is appealing. However, as mentioned by Colin, questions arise in terms of human versus non-human judgement in emergency situations. And – total reliance on AI seems a little risky. Who ever heard of a machine that NEVER broke down? I had a Volvo once that stopped dead. Diagnosis (£300) found the fault to be an intermittently faulty diode on the fuel injection circuit board. Value? 12p. Apply this to your self-driving vehicle speeding down the motorway at 70mph.

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