The Highway Code is to be updated this year with rules for “self-driving” cars that will allow drivers to watch TV and check emails on the move.
The changes to the code will set out where and when “self-driving” can be used as well as drivers’ responsibility for taking back control.
They also set out who is legally responsible if a car using such technology is involved in a crash.
Despite there currently being no cars on sale capable of autonomous driving, the Government claims the changes will move Britain “closer to a self-driving revolution”.
The new guidance will allow “drivers to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens, while the self-driving vehicle is in control”. However, using a mobile phone while at the wheel of a “self-driving” vehicle will still be illegal.
The rules will also clarify when a driver has to take back control of the car, such as approaching exit ramps, and confirm that drivers will not be viewed as responsible for crashes while the technology is in use. Instead, insurance companies will be expected to handle claims for damages and injuries.
The Department for Transport says that self-driving cars could be on Britain’s roads this year in the form of vehicles equipped with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS).
It says these systems differ from current “assistive technologies” by fully taking over the task of controlling the car from the driver and allowing them to focus on non-driving activities. However, the human operator still has to be able to take back control within 10 seconds when requested by the car.
Initially, use of such systems would be limited to use on motorways and at speeds of up to 37mph.
Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said: “This is a major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles, which will revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable.”
The Government says it is working to finalise legal and regulatory frameworks to allow the widespread use of autonomous vehicles by 2025.
Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research said guidance on responsibilities was welcome. He commented: “Education is a key enabler of safe adoption [of automated driving], and as such we welcome the announcement’s focus on ensuring that drivers understand their legal obligations behind the wheel of any vehicle described as having ‘self-driving capability’.
“As a clear communication to the consumer, the announcement’s focus on the driver’s legal responsibilities is important, especially when it comes to taking back control from the system. This is an area of risk and it’s important that drivers are aware that they must remain engaged and be ready to resume the driving task at any time.”
However, David Ward, president of the Global New Car Assessment Programme safety body, said the announcement highlighted “strange priorities” at the DfT as it put enabling “severe distractions in yet-to-exist autonomous vehicles” ahead of legislating for existing systems such as intelligent speed assistance.
Steve Gooding, director of motoring research charity the RAC Foundation, said driverless cars “promise a future where death and injury on our roads are cut significantly” but there is likely to be a “long period of transition” while drivers retain “much of the responsibility for what happens”.
He stressed the importance of changes to regulations being communicated to drivers.
“Vehicle manufacturers and sellers will have a vital role to play in ensuring their customers fully appreciate the capabilities of the cars they buy and the rules that govern them,” he said.