John Thornton unpacks the details of the Automated Vehicles Bill, which aims to put the UK at the forefront of self-driving technology regulation…
A landmark piece of legislation signalling what’s considered to be the first true step toward the commercial deployment of self-driving vehicles on UK roads was announced during the state opening of Parliament by HRH King Charles III on 07 November 2023. In a briefing document released by Number 10, the UK government referred to an Automated Vehicles Bill that it claims will unlock a “transport revolution” by enabling the safe deployment of self-driving vehicles.
The document states that the bill will cement the UK’s position as a “global leader” in the high tech and high growth industry and deliver one of the world’s “most comprehensive legal frameworks” for self-driving vehicles, with safety at its core. What’s more, the new legislation will reportedly release the huge growth potential of the sector, which will enable the UK to create a market of up to £42bn and create 38,000 skilled jobs by 2035.
“Self-driving vehicles will make transport safer, more convenient and more accessible, improving the lives of millions of people,” the report states. “With 88% of accidents currently involving human error, the potential for automated vehicles to reduce costs, injuries, and fatalities is enormous. They will empower people across the country to get around more easily, including to school or work which will boost productivity.”
However, according to Alastair Evanson, head of commercial and business development for Assured CAV at engineering consultancy Horiba Mira, whilst the bill will go some way to providing the industry with a level of certainty of what the end requirements, roles and responsibilities will look like if a ‘revolution’ is to happen, a national framework to which the bill will contribute is still required.
“The other two essential ingredients are the right skills and financing,” says Evanson. “We are fortunate in the UK to have the skills part of the jigsaw in place, and this is our competitive advantage. It provides the potential for the UK to reassert its position at the heart of the global automotive industry, no longer as a volume manufacturer of cars, but supplying the high value-added specialist engineering capability.”
“The certainty that the bill provides gives confidence to companies working in this area to invest to an extent, but there is still much to resolve in the costs of bringing the technology to market” – Alastair Evanson, head of commercial and business development for Assured CAV, Horiba Mira
MPs on the UK Transport Select Committee will likely have welcomed the announcement of new laws to govern self-driving technologies after calling for new legislation to tackle safety concerns in September. It made series of recommendations on how the government should approach their introduction to the UK’s roads in its report on the future of self-driving vehicles.
“To this end, the sector requires a concerted effort to foster a skilled workforce equipped to tackle the unique challenges and opportunities presented by automated technologies,” says Hayley Pells, policy and public affairs lead at the Institute of the Motor Industry. “This means that educational institutions, industry players, and the government must collaborate to develop targeted training programmes and career pathways that reflect the evolving needs of this high-tech industry.
According to the government, 70% of global automotive-sector companies that source for self-driving technologies do so from the UK. Meanwhile, between 2018 and 2022, the UK self-driving vehicle sector reportedly generated £475m of direct investment and 1,500 new jobs.
“We can either lead the way or follow the leaders,” states the report. “This legislation would be one of the world’s most comprehensive legal frameworks for self-driving vehicles, based on the international thought-leadership of the Law Commissions’ review. The bill will provide the certainty and confidence that the private sector needs to unlock research, innovation, and investment across the whole of the UK.”
Evanson concurs somewhat: “The certainty that the bill provides gives confidence to companies working in this area to invest to an extent, but there is still much to resolve in the costs of bringing the technology to market. UK Plc and our tech companies are competing with Google in the form of Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise and other global tech titans with deep pockets.
“With autonomy being a long-lead, R&D-based enterprise, UK public funding kick-starting and enabling private capital is a necessity if the country wants to take a share of this market.”
Crucially, the report argues that the UK needs to update its laws to ensure the potential benefits of self-driving technologies can become a reality. However, it stresses that safety and the protection of the user will be at the heart of its new regime, and it will make sure that only the driver – be it the vehicle or person – is accountable, by clarifying and updating the law.
It will thus implement the recommendations of the four-year review of self-driving vehicle legislation carried out by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission. It will also set a “rigorous safety framework” for self-driving vehicles, with safety at its core and set the threshold for self-driving vehicles in law.
This means that only vehicles that can drive themselves safely and can follow all road traffic rules without the need for a human to monitor or control the vehicle to maintain that level of safety will be classified as self-driving and allowed on UK roads. But is the right approach?
“It avoids the complex scenario of a shared responsibility model between the self-driving car and the driver,” says Michael Hurwitz, future mobility, energy and innovation expert at PA Consulting. “Without a clear dividing line of responsibilities, it is likely that each car manufacturer or even model could have a different boundary around what the car is responsible for, versus the driver.
“This type of fragmentation in self-driving vehicle capabilities would undermine public trust, underlining the need for a ‘trust by design’ approach to autonomous vehicles,” continues Hurwitz. “Similar models with clear lines of responsibility work effectively in other modes of transport, for example autonomous trains and aircraft autopilot systems.”
Thus, the UK Department for Transport and its agencies will be given new powers to authorise these vehicles and ensure in-use compliance with the safety standards that the government will set. It will also hold companies – and people – accountable once vehicles are on roads. Companies will have to meet safety requirements from the point a vehicle is introduced onto UK roads or face new sanctions and penalties if they fail in their duty. These will include fines, requirements to take corrective action, and suspension of operation. Criminal offences will apply in serious cases. The bill also sets out new processes to investigate incidents involving self-driving vehicles to ensure that lessons are fed back into the safety framework.
Despite welcoming these measures, Hurwitz’s colleague at PA Consulting, Tom Cartmell, a connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) and mobility expert, admits the announcement of the bill has raised questions, especially around vehicle security and the ownership and handling of vehicle data. “Consumers need to feel confident that their data is safe and secure, as is their vehicle. To truly be able to transition to a CAV society the security of vehicles must be of utmost importance.
“Consumers need to feel confident that their data is safe and secure, as is their vehicle. To truly be able to transition to a CAV society the security of vehicles must be of utmost importance” – Tom Cartmell, connected and autonomous vehicle and mobility expert, PA Consulting
“CAVs can require around one billion lines of code placing cybersecurity into sharp focus. There will be a need for robust cybersecurity protections and regular security updates that do not impact the driving experience. CAVs cannot have a ‘blue screen’ computer crash or a ‘please wait until security updates are applied’ moment, without serious consequences.”
According to Cartmell, interaction with related European Union (EU) legislation, such as the EU Data Act, is another important consideration together with the likely regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) embedded in the vehicle.
Despite the level of detail set out in the bill, for some, particularly the average driver, the concept of truly driverless vehicles being commonplace on public roads remains one akin to sci-fi. And one of the biggest obstacles to overcome before the UK can truly realise the benefits of autonomous technology pertains to the state of British roads.
For example, the UK is thought to currently have more than one million potholes, with these road defects being one of the leading causes of car breakdowns. Such is the poor condition of Britain’s local roads that the RAC said this month that it is dealing with the highest number of pothole-related breakdowns it has seen in any third quarter since it began recording this data in 2006.
To compound matters, according to the RAC’s 2023 edition of its annual Report on Motoring, two-thirds (67%) o drivers say that the condition of the local roads they regularly drive on has deteriorated in the past 12 months, up from 60% in the 2022 report, making for the biggest increase since 2017. While problems with potholes and poor road surfaces are overwhelmingly to blame (cited by 97% of drivers), there are several other factors contributing to this decline, including faded road markings (61%), litter (35%) and poor signage visibility (34%).
And yet, Evanson remains unfazed. “Autonomous systems will need to operate in a mix of conditions, ensuring they have an appropriate fallback if they encounter certain situations, such as poorly maintained infrastructure. Having a good quality of infrastructure is a bonus, and often the system will be designed to operate with the appropriate level of infrastructure it requires. For example, modern-day lane-keep systems can accommodate an element of a section of poor line markings
“In addition, the Automated Vehicles Bill also allows for the digitising of traffic regulation orders meaning speed limits and other information traditionally displayed on signs can be incorporated or transmitted to the vehicles at a digital layer.”
This data will be used to create a digital map of the road network to support the safe operation of self-driving vehicles, which could also help make parking easier for all drivers by providing better information such as the location and availability of parking spaces. However, how this wealth of data is managed, updated and validated remains a significant challenge where AI and data analytics are likely to play a role, believes Hurwitz.
“The data gathered when a pothole is hit could be reported back, giving the precise location and the level of shock when impacted, to flag potholes needing repair automatically to highways or the local authority” – Michael Hurwitz, future mobility, energy and innovation expert, PA Consulting
Interestingly, Hurwitz also believes self-driving cars could even become a key data source to address issues such as potholes. “The data gathered when a pothole is hit could be reported back, giving the precise location and the level of shock when impacted, to flag potholes needing repair automatically to highways or the local authority. The data could also be used as part of the evidence required to support insurance claims for any vehicle damage. This level of data gathering does need strict governance to ensure the driver’s privacy rights are maintained.”
Until now, providing a quantifiable level of certainty across a national road network has been a significant challenge, but a project team called CERTUS, led by Horiba Mira working with industry partners including Polestar, IPG CarMaker, Coventry University and Connected Places Catapult, is developing a solution.
The first part is to help determine what to test, how to test and when to stop, bringing novel AI and machine-learning approaches with physical testing so automated technologies can be verified in a wide range of use cases without the need to drive billions of testing miles. This ‘verification’ data is then overlaid across a second dataset managed by Connected Places Catapult that represents the physical conditions of the entire UK road network to show how the deployment of that technology can ‘scale’ to a national level.
When the work is complete in 2025, it could, for the first time, provide a quantitative assessment of whether new automated driving systems are fit for deployment and which road types and geographies the systems will work – and importantly what residual risks remain for the developers, operators, regulators and insurers.
Letter of the law
On the thorny issue of legal liability, the bill aims to ensure clear guidelines and will create new organisations responsible for self-driving, as well as the responsibilities of companies that develop and operate self-driving vehicles on roads in Great Britain. As mentioned earlier, while the vehicle is driving itself, a company rather than an individual will be responsible for the way it drives.
As a result, companies will have ongoing obligations to keep their vehicles safe and ensure that they continue to drive in accordance with British laws. They will be required to report certain safety related data to the authorisation authority and the in-use regulator and to comply with other relevant laws, including data protection and environmental protection legislation.
They will also protect users from being unfairly held accountable. The bill gives people immunity from prosecution when a self-driving vehicle is driving itself, given it does not make sense to then hold the person sat behind the wheel responsible. Non-driving responsibilities, however, will remain with that person, such as maintaining appropriate insurance for the vehicle and ensuring proper loading, as well as responsibility during any part of the journey where the person is driving.
“Ultimately, the most important factor in determining the safe deployment of automated technologies in any particular context is providing a degree of certainty for the occupant, their insurers and the agencies responsible for regulating the highways regarding their performance in the huge complexity it encounters in the real world,” says Evanson.
Achievements and innovations in autonomous vehicles will be celebrated at the third annual CiTTi Awards, which will be held on 26 November 2024 at the De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms in London. Nominations officially open in March 2024. Please visit www.cittiawards.co.uk to learn more about this unmissable event for the UK’s transportation sector.