Self-driving vehicles could be on British roads by 2026, after the government’s Automated Vehicles (AV) Act became law today (20 May).

Announced in the King’s Speech, the AV Act enables advanced technology to safely drive vehicles on British roads.

The DfT said this week that the new law unlocks the potential of an industry estimated to be worth up to £42bn and creating 38,000 more skilled jobs by 2035.

It added that self driving vehicles could support areas suffering driver shortages, such as haulage, and where work can be dangerous, such as mining.automated vehicles.

The technology is also expected to improve road safety by reducing human error, which contributes to 88% of road collisions.

The law will require self-driving vehicles to achieve a level of safety at least as high as careful and competent human drivers, as well as meeting rigorous safety checks before being allowed onto roads.

If these levels are achieved is could see a significant reduction in deaths and injuries from drink driving, speeding, tiredness and inattention, DfT added.

Announcing the law, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “Britain stands at the threshold of an automotive revolution, and this new law is a milestone moment for our self-driving industry which has the potential to change the way we travel forever.

“While this doesn’t take away people’s ability to choose to drive themselves, our landmark legislation means self-driving vehicles can be rolled out on British roads as soon as 2026, in a real boost to both safety and our economy.”

The government sees the passage of the Act as bolstering the UK’s position in both the self-driving vehicle and AI sectors.

The AV Act follows self-driving trials already taking place across the country. Wayve and Oxa are currently trialling self-driving cars and vans in London and Oxford. This month it was revealed Wayve had secured more than $1bn in investment to develop its AI technology further here in the UK.

Wayve has said that its technological advancements have been supported by the UK’s Code of Practice: Automated Vehicle Trialling, which sets out a clear framework to support and promote the safe trailing of self-driving vehicle technology.

Between 2018 and 2022, the UK self-driving vehicle sector alone generated £475m of direct investment and created 1,500 new jobs.

The Act sets out a legal framework and makes clear who is liable for AVs, meaning that drivers can be assured that while their vehicle is in self-driving mode, they will not be held responsible for how the vehicle drives. For the first time, corporations such as insurance providers, software developers and automotive manufacturers can assume this responsibility.

To ensure these vehicles are safe for British roads, the vehicle approval system will be supported by a completely independent incident investigation function.

DfT said: ”This will promote the same culture of learning and continuous improvement that has made our aviation industry one of the safest in the world. Companies will have ongoing obligations to keep their vehicles safe and ensure that they continue to drive in accordance with British laws.”

Paul Newman, OXA founder and chief technical officer, said: “The immense work put in by the DfT, Law Commissions and CCAV in crafting the Automated Vehicles Bill has helped it pass into law with the strongest cross-party backing.

”We now have autonomous vehicle (AV) legislation which is more comprehensive in scope and clearer in its requirements than in any other country.

“The Act gives the UK new momentum as developers like Oxa will need to comply with the world’s most comprehensive autonomous vehicle laws to deploy technology in vehicles here.

”Meeting the highest AV standards will make British companies global leaders with technology that is the safest and AI systems the most trusted - all key to building business and public trust in autonomy globally.”

Alex Kendall, Wayve co-founder and CEO, said: “I am delighted that the Automated Vehicles Bill has received Royal Assent.

”This is a critical milestone for the UK’s deployment of self-driving technology and cements the UK as a global leader in regulating this sector.

”We are grateful to the Government and all who have engaged with us in the conversation about the importance of this legislation.

“Self-driving technology promises a safer, smarter and more sustainable future of transport. There’s still some way to go with secondary legislation before we can reap the full benefits of self-driving vehicles in the UK, but we are confident the Government will prioritise these next steps so this technology can be deployed as soon as possible.”

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said: ”This is a watershed moment for UK automotive innovation and road safety in the UK. Self-driving vehicles will revolutionise our society, and this new law will help turn ambition into reality, putting the UK alongside a handful of other global markets that already have their regulatory frameworks in place.

“The industry will continue its close collaboration with government and other stakeholders to develop the necessary secondary legislation that will enable the safe and responsible commercial rollout of self-driving vehicles and the significant social and economic benefits they will afford the UK.”

Richard Cuerden, Director at the Transport Research Laboratory added: “TRL welcomes the AV Bill and the ambitious direction it sets to improve transport. The automated technology, software and sensors, and the business models to deliver new services, are developing fast.

”By setting a regulatory framework, the government is providing the industry with confidence and motivation to continue to, and we expect to increase investment in the UK, in this growing sector.

“The promise is more accessible, safer and greener journeys for goods and people, and at TRL we are working hard to ensure that this is delivered.

”The commercial success will only be possible if the public has trust in the technology and chooses to use AVs.

”Here safety is key and we are working hard to develop safe engineering and system requirements, and in parallel recognising that it is as important to provide public confidence.”