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Self-driving cars get updated guidelines for trial safety and transparency

The Department for Transport has issued guidance on trial safety and transparency for self-driving cars, and is sticking by its pledge to have self-driving cars on Britain’s roads in the next two years

The government has stood by its pledge to have fully self-driving cars – also known as connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) – on UK roads in the next two years, as it announced the development of a new process to support advanced trials of the technology.

Coming in part thanks to feedback from the automotive and technology industries, the existing regulations, which date back to 2015, will be strengthened to set clearer expectations for safe and responsible trials of CAVs in the UK, and no advanced trials will be supported unless they can pass an even more rigorous safety assessment.

At the end of January 2019, a study conducted by technology firm Thales found that the general public was still extremely wary of CAVs. The organisation is among a number of industry players calling for more stringent simulation and testing processes.

“We want to ensure through the Industrial Strategy Future of Mobility Grand Challenge that we build on this success and strength to ensure we are home to development and manufacture of the next generation of vehicles,” said automotive minister Richard Harrington.

“We need to ensure we take the public with us as we move towards having self-driving cars on our roads by 2021. The update to the code of practice will provide clearer guidance to those looking to carry out trials on public roads.”

The beefed-up regulations are said to acknowledge the desire of the industry to push for more advanced trials, so it will now include requirements for testers to publish safety information, trial performance reports, and to do risk assessments ahead of time. Organisations will also be made to inform the relevant authorities, including the emergency services, when trial activity is taking place.

Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research, an organisation that has done much to advance the dialogue around road safety as it relates to CAVs, as well as the public’s attitude towards them, welcomed the government’s ambitions.

“We welcome the advent of fully automated cars and the many benefits to mobility and car safety they will bring. However, the desire to accelerate the implementation of these technologies while keeping all road users safe is a delicate balancing act. Safety must be a key priority, and this must not be compromised to achieve a leadership position,” said Avery.

“We look forward to the opportunity to engage in the government’s consultation on The Automated Driving Code of Practice.”

AA public policy spokesman Luke Bosdet said the AA was broadly supportive of the government's ambition to have CAVs on the roads by 2021, although he pointed out that it would likely be in limited scenarios, probably in urban areas, to begin with. He acknowledged that careful testing still needed to be done, and as an example of how tricky designing and testing CAVs is proving, pointed to recent AA research, released in the context of the ongoing consultation by the Law Commission into autonomous vehicles, which examined public attitudes to how CAVs may have to make life-or-death decisions in emergencies.

Using a variant of the Trolley Problem, a famous thought experiment that explores how humans make ethical decisions in life-or-death situations, respondents were given two collision options, one in which two children had run into the road, and one in which there were two elderly pedestrians on the pavement.

In both scenarios over half of respondents (59%) said that if they were riding in a CAV and it had no option but to crash, the vehicle should put the respondent in harm's way if not to do so risked more lives. One in 20 felt the vehicle should hit someone else, and many more felt unable to determine what action the car should take in either scenario.

Nevertheless, Bosdet said, the potential inherent in CAVs was clearly far too attractive for the government to pass up. "Self-driving cars offer big opportunities for groups of road-users that are currently disadvantaged, such as the elderly and less robust. The flexibility of a driverless vehicle will be a major boon for them," he said.

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