The government has set out changes to the Highway Code to ensure the first self-driving cars, vans, trucks and buses are introduced safely on the UK’s roads.
The changes come as the government prepares to approve the launch of the first self-driving vehicles on Britain’s roads, possibly as early as this year.
The new rules, announced today (19 April), follow a public consultation which found the majority of respondents were broadly supportive of the proposed changes.
The changes clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles, including when to take back control of the vehicle, such as when approaching a motorway exit.
Announcing the new rules, the DfT said the technology could improve and level up transport, ease congestion, cut emissions and reduce collisions caused by human error.
The plans also include a change to current regulations which will allow drivers to view non-driving related content on built-in display screens, while the self-driving vehicle is in control.
However this does not include using mobile phones, which will not be allowed to be used in self-driving mode, due to the greater risk the devices pose in distracting drivers, DfT said.
Advocates of self-driving cars, buses and delivery vehicles argue that the technology will help cut urban congestion, with traffic lights and vehicles connecting to each other to keep traffic flowing, reduce emissions, and improve urban air quality.
The technology could also improve access to transport for people with mobility issues and lead to more reliable public transport services, helping to level-up access to transport in historically disconnected and rural areas.
Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said: “This is a major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles, which will revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable.
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“This exciting technology is developing at pace right here in Great Britain and we’re ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when it takes to our roads.
“In doing so, we can help improve travel for all while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain’s place as a global science superpower.”
The government estimates that the development of self-driving vehicles could create around 38,000 new, high-skilled jobs within Britain’s industry that would be worth £41.7bn by 2035.
DfT said the introduction of the technology is likely to begin with vehicles travelling at slow speeds on motorways, such as in congested traffic.
A full regulatory framework is expected to be in place to support the widespread deployment of the technology by 2025.
The DfT said the technology could improve road safety across Britain by reducing human error, which is a contributory factor in 88% of all recorded road collisions.
Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: “Amending the Highway Code to reflect the pace of technological change will help clarify what motorists can and can’t do when a self-driving feature is engaged, so promoting its safe use.
“The technology could be available in the UK later this year and, with the right regulations in place, consumers are set to benefit from safer, more efficient journeys while the UK will strengthen its position as a global leader in the deployment of self-driving technology.”
Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “The final part of the jigsaw is to ensure these amendments are widely communicated to, and understood by, vehicle owners.
“Vehicle manufacturers and sellers will have a vital role to play in ensuring their customers fully appreciate the capabilities of the cars they buy and the rules that govern them."