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Are ministers revising UK laws for driverless cars?

Science Minister emphasises need to allow driverless cars to be legally driven on roads so UK can maintain competitive edge in technology race.

The UK is moving one step closer to autonomous driving. Science Minister David Willetts is pushing for a change to road laws to allow driverless cars, such as Google’s, to be used legally on UK roads.

A change in the law to allow driverless cars on UK roads are being considered by ministers
A change in the law to allow driverless cars on UK roads are being considered by ministers

To foster development of these nascent technologies in the UK, Mr Willetts insists that the Highway Code needs to be rewritten. Last month, a change to the UN Convention on Road Traffic meant the statement “a driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or guide animals” now allows the car to drive itself so long as a driver is present at all times and the system can be overridden. It is hoped the same language can be applied to the Highway Code.

The US-based Google scheme is not the only driverless car technology project. Students at Oxford University have been developing their own version for some time. However, the main challenge is real world testing. Mr Willetts suggests, in an interview with the Daily Mail, that Britain’s technology could be considerably cheaper than Google’s, but Google has been able to tot up significantly more testing miles. Mr Willetts says, “We have got to ensure that the British has its own opportunity to get tested in a wider range of environments and that’s what we are working on with the Department of Transport.”

The biggest obstacle to autonomous driving is legislating and insuring against accidents. Theoretically, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications should minimise collisions. Using GPS, wireless mobile networks and 5.9GHz radio frequencies, the cars will transmit data such speed, direction and location to other cars. The cars’ computer systems will be able to compute the information very quickly and control the cars’ response to that data. However, computers aren’t infallible.

Car manufacturers are keeping a close watch on governments around the world to see who will legislate first and how it will be managed.

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