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UK moves step closer to fully autonomous cars without safety driver at the wheel

In efforts to ensure driverless cars are on UK roads by 2021, the government says it is working on a process to support advanced trials of the technology – which would allow vehicles to be tested without a safety driver.

The step forward which in some quarters maybe seen as controversial would see a marked change in the rules around trials which currently require a human remote driver who could take control whenever needed.

However, in order for firms to be supported by the government and be able to conduct such advanced trials, they will have to pass “rigorous safety assessments”. Furthermore, due to progress made in the country, ministers are also promising to beef up its code of practice for testing automated vehicles.

The ‘code of practice’, first published in 2015, makes clear that automated vehicle trials are possible on any UK road provided they are compliant with UK law - including testing with a remote driver.

Under the strengthened code, those carrying out trials for automated vehicles will be expected to publish safety information, trial performance reports and to carry out risks assessments before conducting a trial.

Trialling organisations are also expected to inform the relevant authorities, emergency services, and anyone who might be affected by trial activity.

Richard Harrington, automotive minister, said improving public perception and getting more people on board with the technology was key to ensuring self-driving cars were on UK roads by 2021.

“The UK has a rich heritage in automotive development and manufacturing, with automated and electric vehicles set to transform the way we all live our lives,” he added. “We want to ensure through the Industrial Strategy Future of Mobility Grand Challenge that we build on this success and strength to ensure we are home to development and manufacture of the next generation of vehicles.”

Government estimates that the UK’s market for connected and automated vehicles will be worth £52 billion by 2035 and therefore wants to encourage more investment from the world’s brightest transport technology companies.

Despite the update provided, it remains unclear on when testing without safety drivers could begin with the Department for Transport still earmarking the already publicised government target of trials by 2021.

Jesse Norman, Future of Mobility minister, added: “Thanks to the UK’s world class research base, this country is in the vanguard of the development of new transport technologies, including automation. The government is supporting the safe, transparent trialling of this pioneering technology, which could transform the way we travel.”