Driverless cars get UK green light, but would you trust them?

Feb 11, 2015

Driverless cars will soon be on British roads, raising a number of technical, legal and safety questions

In a move that puts the UK at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing, driverless cars are set to be trialled on British roads this year.

 "These are still early days but today is an important step, " said transport minister Claire Perry. "The trials present a fantastic opportunity for this country to take a lead internationally in the development of this new technology,"

The testing will begin in the summer in a bid to encourage international firms to invest in the technology in Britain, Reuters reports. The cars will be required to have a driver in them who is able to take control if the need arises.

The driverless car industry is expected to be worth £900 million by 2025 and the race to develop them has seen classic car companies such as Daimler competing against technology giant Google.  

What are driverless cars?

Driverless cars are classed as vehicles that take on the tasks of steering, accelerating and braking between two points with a minimum of input from a human operator. A variety of autonomous technologies, such as parking assistance, cruise-control and anti-lane drift already exist, but new research from automotive and technological companies around the world is driving the development of cars that can take on more of the tasks of everyday driving.

How do they work?

Driverless cars use a range of different technologies, including Lidar (light detection and ranging), which helps a vehicle position itself in relation to other objects by bouncing lasers off reflective surfaces; "computer vision", which, according to the BBC helps "make sense of 360-degree images"; and global-positioning system (GPS) data from satellites. Together, the technologies allow driverless cars to avoid inanimate objects, evade other vehicles and pedestrians, obey road rules, and respond correctly to road features such as traffic lights and roundabouts.

Which other countries are testing driverless cars?

The US has approved testing of driverless cars in California, Nevada and Florida. Japan ran tests of its own last year on a public highway. In Europe, Gothenburg has been given approval to begin tests in 2017.

Which companies are working on autonomous vehicles?

Currently, Google is working on driverless cars in the United States. Up until recently the tech company was putting its self-driving technology into other manufacturers' vehicles, such as BMW and Audi, but in May, Google announced that it would begin producing cars of its own. According to the BBC, Chinese search firm, Baidu, also recently announced that it had a driverless car in the "early stage of development".

But are they safe? 

Although some may be nervous about the idea of autonomous cars driving around, industry experts insist they will be the safest vehicles on our roads.

The vast majority of accidents happen because of human error, a spokesperson from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders told The Guardian. "Computers don't get bored or distracted, or take their eyes off the road because they want to change the radio station or make a phone call," he said.

A study by Google also showed that its driverless cars were proven to be better at keeping a safe distance between vehicles than human drivers could, the Daily Telegraph reports. 

How will UK laws need to be adapted?

The Department for Transport says that it has found no legal barrier to testing driverless cars on British roads and has given the project the green light. It is now working on a code of practice for the cars, due to be published in spring.

However, beyond the testing phase, changes to road regulations and car maintenance checks will be needed before driverless cars can be introduced more widely. It has promised to conduct a full review of current legislation before 2017, the BBC reports. It will look at ensuring the cars safety, amending the Highway Code and MOT regulations, as well as who would be responsible in the event of a crash. 

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