Self-Driving Cars to Hit UK Roads by 2026; New Legislation Passed

Legislation makes clear any self-driving vehicles must attain a safety standard equivalent to cautious and skilled human drivers

Graham Hope

May 22, 2024

3 Min Read
Rendering of connectivity across cars driving on the road

Self-driving vehicles could be on the roads of the United Kingdom in as little as two years after the Automated Vehicles Act became law.

The intention to introduce the legislation was announced in the King’s Speech to mark the State Opening of Parliament in London last November, but now the AV Act has received Royal Assent, formalizing its status.

The law was welcomed by the U.K.’s Transport Secretary Mark Harper, who 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.”

While we have already seen other countries, including China and Japan, establish guidelines and laws for the safe use of automated vehicles (AVs), the U.K.’s Department for Transport (DfT) claims that what is now in place in Britain is the “most comprehensive legal framework” of its type in the world.

Drivers are assured that “where their vehicle is in self-driving mode, they will not be held responsible for how the vehicle drives.” Instead, that responsibility will fall on insurers, software developers and automakers.

Related:Automaker Plans Driverless Bus, Ditches Self-Driving Cars

However, the legislation also makes clear that any self-driving vehicles allowed on to the roads must “achieve a level of safety at least as high as careful and competent human drivers, as well as meeting rigorous safety checks.”

To that end, a comprehensive vehicle approval system will be supported by an independent investigation process in the event of accidents. 

Testing of self-driving tech in the U.K. has not advanced at the same pace as elsewhere, notably in the United States and China.

However, there have been several high-profile programs. Oxa – previously branded Oxbotica – carried out Europe’s first test of a fully autonomous vehicle in its hometown of Oxford in 2022, while Wayve, which recently raised $1 billion in funding to develop its AI-focused approach, has tested self-driving cars in London.

Among the OEMs, Ford became the first to be approved to offer “hands off” driver assistance tech in the U.K. in 2023 on its Mustang Mach E model.

While the DfT has been vocal about the safety benefits of automated functionality – highlighting that human error features in 88% of road collisions – it also recognizes it could bring financial benefits too, estimating that the industry could be worth up to $53.3 billion and create 38,000 skilled jobs by 2035.

Related:Major Automaker Signs Virtual Testing Deal for Self-Driving Cars

The law was welcomed by the umbrella body that represents the interests of automakers in the U.K., the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. 

“This is a watershed moment for U.K. automotive innovation and road safety in the U.K.,” said chief executive Mike Hawes.  “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.”

About the Author(s)

Graham Hope

Graham Hope has worked in automotive journalism in the U.K. for 26 years, including spells as editor of leading consumer news website and weekly Auto Express and respected buying guide CarBuyer.

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