There are new calls for safety legislation when it comes to self-driving vehicles.

MPs on the Transport Committee wants a better legal framework, as well as cautioning against rushing into the deployment of autonomous vehicles on public roads.

In a new report from the committee on the future of self-driving vehicles, a number of recommendations are made.

In control

MPs say the widespread take-up of self-driving vehicles faces various hurdles. These include public confidence in their safety, security and potential knock-on impacts for other road users.

Witnesses appearing in front of the Committee described current laws for self-driving vehicles as “archaic and limiting”. The sector is “crying out” for regulation according to commentators.

Transport Committee chair, Iain Stewart, says the UK is forward thinking and progressive when it comes to this evolving area of transport. He says:” : “The UK has a head start in developing a vision for how SDVs (self-driving vehicles) could be introduced. The Government’s strategy is one this committee broadly welcomes.

“Self-driving vehicles are a great British success story in the making and we have a competitive advantage over many other countries.

“But all that hard work could be at risk if the Government doesn’t follow through and bring forward a Transport Bill in the next Parliamentary session, before the next general election.”

Looking for the laws

The MPs commended the work of the Law Commissions and the Government in devising a new legal framework, Connected & Automated Mobility 2025.

While that framework has broad support, there is huge disappointment that the Government has not committed it to legislation.

Committee members urge the Government to pass comprehensive legislation in the next parliamentary session. This could put in place the robust regulatory framework it promised. It should cover vehicle approvals, liability for accidents, cybersecurity, and the use of personal data.

Failing to do so will do significant and lasting damage both to the UK’s self-driving industry and the country’s reputation as a trailblazer, according to the report.

It also comments that, while it is widely assumed that self-driving vehicles will prove safer than human drivers, this is not a given.

Optimistic predictions often rely on self-driving vehicles becoming widely used on UK roads. However, this could be decades away, and the assertions often ignore some risks.

Safe or safer

Safety must remain the Government’s overriding priority. This technology is faces huge real-world complexities. With this in mind, the Government needs to set a clearer, more stretching threshold, for safety.

Greater automation will reduce time spent driving. This will lead to a de-skilling of drivers.

Conversely, the requirement for drivers to be ready to take manual control of a vehicle. It means a risk of facing challenging scenarios with little notice and little practise or experience.

Government is called on to set out a strategy for the future of human driving in a world of self-driving vehicles. This should include possible changes to driving tests and a plan to ensure all drivers fully understand the technology.

Stewart adds: “If the Government is going to meet its ambitions for self-driving vehicle deployment these knotty issues need to be addressed”.  

“We believe the Government should take a cautious, gradual approach, with SDV technologies only initially introduced in well-defined contexts, or else we risk unintended consequences.”

Hacking, roadworthy and liable

There are also concerns over cybersecurity risks because of their connected rather than automated capabilities.

The committee says it poses new dangers, and the law must evolve to meet these. A safety-led culture will require wide access to data.

Ensuring self-driving vehicles are roadworthy will also be more complicated than for conventional vehicles. There is more to go wrong and a lot of it highly technical, computer and digitally reliant.

Legal liability also becomes more complex. It will be shared between owner and vehicle software operators. This may cause problems for the insurance industry.

While there is a basic framework, the committee believes more work and detail is needed.

Holes in the road network

Self-driving vehicles will need well-maintained roads. Road maintenance and infrastructure is already a big issue to motorists. With self-driving vehicles, it becomes even more essential and should be a high priority. It takes time, and technological development of the vehicles is overtaking the roads’ abilities to cope and provide the necessary qualities. As well as basic road surface quality,  signage, nationwide connectivity, and up-to-date digital information about the road network will be essential.

The committee says that preparations are too siloed and divorced from broader planning.

If the Government is serious about self-driving vehicles, it should ensure meeting their needs is an integral part of future infrastructure strategy, it adds.

Training and testing

Government must ensure the introduction of self-driving vehicles is responsive to the wider population says the report, It must meet the UK’s transport policy objectives, which are the subject of a separate inquiry by the Transport Committee.

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy for the AA, agrees that there needs more, urgent preparation.

“The prospect of fully self-driving cars was once in the realms of sci-fi,” he says. But the speed of development means they “could be coming to a street near you” sooner than you think.

“However, road authorities will have to be more meticulous with the condition of the roads, particularly markings and signage that are critical for a self-driving car to navigate. Skimping on maintenance schedules to save money won’t be an option.

More technology, even on standard cars, requires modernising the driving test. Drivers need to be tested on their abilities to utilise these safely and effectively.

“Following the boom in sat-navs, the practical test was updated”, he says.

“Car technology is evolving all the time,” including driver assistance technologies. However, “the mindset of drivers changes when they are asked to consider relinquishing control to a fully self-driving car.”

He believes “drivers are nervous,” and require “education, training and rigorously tested technology”.

Read the report here.