Newly planned rules are expected to allow watching TV and digital screen use in autonomous vehicles.

The news comes as the government recently established new laws against phone use behind the wheel.

Changes to the Highway Code are set to make screen use at the wheel permissible for motorists travelling in a “self-driving” car. However, the statement by the Department for Transport (DfT) makes clear that phone use will remain illegal. In fact, all mobile phones and handheld devices will remain outlawed in self-driving mode. They are considered to be a greater risk in distracting drivers according to research.

Future thinking

The DfT statement says: “We are modifying the application of this regulation. This is to enable drivers to view information of any sort on the in-built apparatus of their vehicle, provided their vehicle is driving itself and has been listed as an automated vehicle under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 (meaning that it is a ‘self-driving’ vehicle).

“The in-built infotainment apparatus is designed to cut out such activities when the vehicle issues a request to resume control and so will assist in managing the driver’s attention.

“A review of research suggests that performing activities not related to the driving task through handheld devices has a marked impact on the time drivers take to respond to transition demands. Handheld devices may also continue to display information after the transition demand is issued and further distract the driver.

“Therefore no changes are being made to the prohibition on use of handheld devices set out in regulation 110 of The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986.”

Slow assimilation

Currently, no self-driving cars are allowed on UK roads other than for licensed research purposes.

The first public use of self-driving technology is likely to be when travelling at slow speeds. This is likely to be on motorways or in  congested traffic.

“This is a major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles,” says Transport minister Trudy Harrison. She adds that they “will revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable.”

Harrison last year stated that the UK must move away from “20th century thinking centred around private vehicle ownership” and towards shared mobility.

“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.”

With the law on its side

Last year, the Government announced proposals for permission of the use of “self-driving” driver assistance systems.

Drivers of vehicles equipped with autonomous lane-keeping systems (ALKS) could be permitted. These would be useable at speeds up to 37mph on motorways.

Government is continuing to develop a full legal framework for self-driving vehicles. The aim is to support the widespread deployment of the technology by 2025.

Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, believes “consumers are set to benefit from safer, more efficient journeys “. He also thinks that “the UK will strengthen its position as a global leader in the deployment of self-driving technology.”

Earlier this year the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission signalled support. It suggests that car makers should be legally responsible for any crashes caused by their self-driving cars. This is part of recommendations in a joint report for the safe and responsible introduction of self-driving vehicles.