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New UK Highway Code rules to cover use of self-driving vehicles

The UK Government has announced planned changes to its Highway Code, which facilitates the use of self-driving vehicles on public roads. The changes are to help “ensure the first wave of [self-driving] technology will be used safely.”

Surprisingly, drivers will be allowed to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens, while the self-driving vehicle is in control. This is perhaps somewhat counterintuitive, as the use of mobile phones while in self-driving mode remains prohibited.

According to the Department for Transport (DfT), drivers of autonomous vehicles will not be held responsible should their vehicle crash. Instead, their insurer will be held liable for any claims which are made.

However, motorists are expected to be ready to resume control of their vehicle at all times if they are prompted to – such as when they approach motorway exits.

While there are currently no vehicles approved for self-driving on UK roads, the DfT said the first models could be given the green light later this year.

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research said the announcement is another “notable landmark” in journey towards safe automated driving.

“Education is a key enabler of safe adoption, and as such we welcome the announcement’s focus on ensuring that drivers understand their legal obligations behind the wheel of any vehicle described as having ‘self-driving capability’,” he said.

“Although automation will ultimately make our roads safer, accidents will still occur. Therefore, data must be recorded that shows who was in control at the time of a collision, however minor, and this data must be openly accessible to all stakeholders, not only the carmakers.

Mercedes-Benz said recently that it will accept legal responsibility for collisions that occur in cars fitted with it’s ‘Drive Pilot’ automated system.

Avery added that carmakers and insurers will work together to handle claims where the vehicle is proven to be in self-driving mode, and that the provision of data will be “vital” to making sense of collisions and ensuring that legal wrangling does not put a brake on adoption.

When it comes to drivers taking back control of the car from the AI, Avery said: “It’s important that drivers are aware that they must remain engaged and be ready to resume the driving task at any time.”

“We are also pleased to see that the proposed changes will not permit mobile phone use, and instead only allow use of the vehicle’s infotainment system – which means the self-driving system can issue a warning as required and bring the driver back into the loop promptly,” he added.