While America might be the home of Google’s developments in autonomous vehicles and manufacturers around the world might be trialling new technologies on the matter, Britain could end up being the trend-setting country that brings driverless vehicles to the masses, as legislators are talking about making it entirely legal to drive them on public roads as soon as next year.
As it stands, autonomous vehicles can only be driven on private roads in the UK, but transport secretary Vince Cable has said he considers them very safe and the legal framework for their usage is set to be hashed out over the next half year.
“Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society,” said Mr Cable.
Elsewhere in the world, like the US, there are some states that allow for autonomous vehicle usage on public roads, but many that don’t and it doesn’t have any laws allowing it at the federal level, nor does it have anything to handle legal problems of fault in the event of an accident. While that is likely to be sorted at some time in the next few years, the state framework that the US has in place, requiring each to approve it, could mean that driverless cars take longer to be fully adopted across the country. In the UK however we don’t have that problem.
Late last year, the government also announced a £10 million grant for any town or city that was willing to become the first trial run of autonomous vehicles in the country. They have until the end of this year to make their application, with three winners ultimately being chosen to begin basic trials as soon as early 2015.
Some of the legal wrangling that needs to be done before this can take place however is quite complicated. It will cover things like whether drivers should be legally required to be ready to take control of the car at any moment, somewhat reducing the functionality of full autonomy. There’s also questions about who is at fault in the case of an accident in a car that isn’t being controlled by a person and whether it should be possible for car makers to produce vehicles with no manual inputs at all, like Google’s recently unveiled driverless car which had a simple GPS screen and a go button – that’s it.
Who will end up providing the autonomous vehicles for the UK test runs remains to be seen, though there are many companies around the world getting in on it. Of course Google is a big player, with most car manufacturers promising some level of automation in their cars over the next five years. However Chinese search giant Baidu has also recently announced its intention to enter the autonomous vehicle game, so we’ll have to wait and see which company the politicians settle on.
Regardless of who they pick however, chances are we’ll see cars without drivers on British roads within the next year or so.