Driverless Cars on British Roads as Soon as Next Year

At the beginning of next month, ministers intend to announce that companies can begin trials of cars that do not require real time human input to drive—cars that drive while you sit and watch. These computer controlled driverless cars will be permitted on public roads from January 2015, which is when trials are scheduled to begin. These trials are set to run for anything between 18 and 36 months. This change to our law necessitates an update to the Highway Code, so that drivers and computer-driven passengers alike have appropriate and compatible guidelines. We can expect such an update by the end of this year.

Many will have already heard about this futuristic possibility, not only in science fiction novels, but from Google, who presented the world with a self-driving car in California earlier this year. Google’s creation lacks an acceleration pedal or steering wheel, and has managed to travel for hundreds of thousands of miles on quiet Californian roads. This has led to bold proclamations of a world where no one need ever drive their car. Promotors are quick to dispel the dystopian reflexes of the public imagination, making it absolutely clear that even though the car is in control of basic driving functions like acceleration, indication and steering, it can be manually overridden at any point. In fact, drivers will still have the ultimate responsibility to monitor the car and intervene whenever necessary in order to stay in line with the law.

How does this transformational technology work? Well, these cars use GPS to track their exact position on a preset electronic map of the route, and this combines with video and sensor data to steer and remain sensitive to changes in the environment. This isn’t too different from some of the semi-autonomous functions that can be found in many cars, such as automatic breaking, parking sensors, anti-lane drift and most obviously, cruise control.

Many are sceptical about this possibility, let alone the time-frame that some of the promotors are estimating. There are obvious safety concerns—ceding this much control could make us more lax, or we could fail to accurately estimate the computer’s capacities in busy real-life situations and the unique hazards they can throw up. Further, the transition between roads that have none of these vehicles to roads full of them will be fraught with complications, as not everyone will be on the same page, even with an updated Highway Code. These reservations will be music to the ears of those who fear—perhaps unnecessarily—that the introduction of these vehicles is the beginning of the end of the joys (and burdens!) of manual and skilled forms of transportation.

Image: XchangE autonomous concept car by Rinspeed

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