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Driverless car transition period poses major challenges says Commons transport committee

Owning a driverless vehicle may also bring new obligations

The Commons transport committee says that the Department for Transport (DfT) needs to prepare for a transition period when autonomous vehicles first come into use, reports the BBC. It emphasised that there is also a need to clarify who will be liable in the event of a driverless car crash.

The government is currently in the process of rewriting legislation in a bid to ensure the UK becomes a world leader in driverless technology. However, in a recent report, an influential group of MPs has drawn attention to many of the complexities that will be faced.

One of the main challenges highlighted is the transition period when manual, semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles are all running together on UK roads. The report points out that several of the perceived benefits of driverless technology – such as improved safety – will be less apparent during this time.

“During the transition period only some of the benefits promised by autonomous vehicles and the application of modern communications technology to motoring will be realised. The full benefits cannot be realised until there is wide uptake of such technologies.”

To that end, the report recommends devising ‘a range of fiscal and other incentives to increase their rate of adoption’. Suggestions include lower rates of vehicle excise duty and a gradual tightening of certification and testing requirements as well as mandating the fitting of particular technologies to new and existing vehicles by a specified date.

AA president Edmund King described the transition period as being ‘a potential nightmare’.

"The report rightly points to potential problems of a transition period on the roads. There is a potential nightmare scenario whereby robotic driverless cars are fighting for space with cars with humans behind the wheel and indeed semi-autonomous cars with no-one totally in control.

"We really need a safe vision for the future whereby all vehicles and all road users can coexist in harmony. This vision will entail government, manufacturers, insurers and indeed drivers agreeing the way ahead."

Another major issue relates to collisions and the report says that it will be important that the DfT clarifies who will be liable in these situations.

“Will the driver of a vehicle remain liable even if a car is operating autonomously, or will the manufacturer of the vehicle bear some responsibility? Depending on how liabilities are apportioned, such technological changes might lead to different models of ownership and a different relationship between manufacturers, owners and drivers.”

It is suggested that changes in technology may mean that vehicle ownership carries new obligations in the future beyond simply ensuring roadworthiness. For example, an owner may become responsible for ensuring that the latest software updates have been applied to the vehicle.

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