UK law gives green light to self-driving cars from 2026

Underground tunnel testing now available for autonomous vehicles

Self-driving vehicles could be on British roads by 2026, following the Automated Vehicles Act becoming law this week.

Allowing for just two years until the technology is deemed able to cope with UK roads could be seen as Elon Musk levels of optimism, however, the act does have a few tricks up its sleeve, notably making it clear that liability for a vehicle will not lie with the driver when it is in self-driving mode.

The UK's Department for Transport said: "Companies will have ongoing obligations to keep their vehicles safe and ensure that they continue to drive in accordance with British laws."

Trials have been underway for a while now in the UK, and companies such as Wayve and Oxa continue to trial self-driving cars in London and Oxford. Those tests have been run under a code of practice, which requires, among other things, "a driver or operator, in or out of the vehicle, who is ready, able, and willing to resume control of the vehicle."

The law paves the way for automation level 4, where a driver does not need to intervene when the vehicle is driving itself. The driver is removed from the chain of responsibility.

Alex Kendall, Co-founder and CEO of Wayve, welcomed the law and described it as "a critical milestone for the UK's deployment of self-driving technology."

However, Kendall also noted: "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 prioritize these next steps so this technology can be deployed as soon as possible."

The law comes after Northamptonshire's Catesby Tunnel became the latest facility to join the CAM Testbed UK network of connected and self-driving test facilities. While being long, straight, smooth, and dry may not seem at first glance to be particularly representative of UK roads, Catesby Projects said: "The tunnel nurtures an environment in which data can easily be gathered with a greater degree of confidence, allowing engineers to analyze the effects of tiny setup changes."

The tunnel's nature also benefits repeatability, and its radio insulation will help show what happens when a connected vehicle cannot contact the mothership.

The 2.7 km tunnel was completed in 1897 and originally intended for railway traffic. Railway operations ceased in September 1966. In recent years, the tunnel has been converted into a vehicle testing facility and opened to the public in early November 2021. ®

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