23 Jul 2015   |   News

UK sets rules for driverless cars as it announces £20M for research

Testers should maintain car ‘black boxes’, prepare for hackers, and ensure full ability to manually take over controls.

Driverless cars on UK roads should be well prepared for any failure, according to a new government code of practice, which says drivers should made aware of malfunctions with audible and visual warnings and there must be a manual over-ride available at all times.

In addition, all driving data should be stored to give researchers and investigators a way to determine what went wrong after an accident. This feature, akin to the black box on a plane, will be important for insuring vehicles and determining liability in the event of an accident.

The risk of hacking is something else to hedge against. "Manufacturers providing vehicles, and other organisations supplying parts for testing will need to ensure that all prototype automated controllers and other vehicle systems have appropriate levels of security built into them to manage any risk of unauthorised access," the guidelines state.

The UK has various groups working on driverless car prototypes, including at Oxford University and the engineering firm Mira.

So far tests have been limited to parks and other off-road spaces. The guidelines will make it possible for driverless vehicles to hit mainstream roads, if they meet certain requirements.

A lot of the new rules are obvious – cars should be fully insured and road worthy, for instance.

Early driverless cars should only offer an automated mode under certain driving conditions such as motorway cruising or in low speed conditions. As the technology develops, so too can the rules, the guidelines say.

Relevant authorities should be alerted before using testing zones and there should be points of contact with the local police and fire services.

Driverless cars are equipped with GPS to guide them on their route, and cameras and sensors to make the vehicle aware of objects and other vehicles around it. Self-driving car evangelists hope automation will both eliminate many traffic accidents caused by human error and ease congestion.

But there is an uphill climb to commercialisation. Concerns about legal and insurance issues will continue to complicate the development of new vehicles. Getting the technology to a price people can afford will also be a big challenge.

£20 million research initiative

On top of new rules, the UK has also launched a £20 million collaborative research and development  programme in driverless vehicles. It is the first part of a £100 million investment.

The government is seeking proposals that address driverless vehicle safety, reliability, vehicle communications, and how they can help give an ageing population greater independence.

Successful bidders will be required to match any cash they receive from the government with their own.

New guidelines here.

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