The UK has embraced autonomous cars, new law in effect from 2026

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aria-label="range rover sport in autonomous driving mode"

Social media has been awash in recent years with reports and videos of dangerously confused autonomous vehicles from companies like Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise – and, more famously, Tesla owners giving their ‘Full Self Driving’ systems too long a leash.

The resulting image doesn’t seem to have deterred the United Kingdom, however, with the nation passing a new law this week that will make privately owned autonomous vehicles legal from 2026.

On the safety front, it has been estimated by the UK Institute for Engineering and Technology that for every 10,000 errors made by human drivers, a self-driving vehicle might make just one. In 2021, human error was recorded as a contributory factor in 88 per cent of all collisions.

The new law, known as the Automated Vehicles Act, was described in parliament as a “watershed moment for UK automotive innovation and road safety”, but it does at least come with conditions.

Prime among them is that vehicles with autonomous driving technology will only be permitted to activate the systems if the manufacturer has achieved “a level of safety at least as high as careful and competent human drivers”.

The UK government has also made clear where its attention will be directed in the event of an incident: legal responsibility will fall on the manufacturer and the car’s insurance company, with the driver considered a ‘user in charge’ rather than a driver in the traditional sense.

It’s unclear if there will be a minimum level of responsibility for the ‘user in charge’ before accountability transfers to the manufacturer and insurer, however, or whether the occupant could literally ignore the entire process of driving and still remain innocent under the law.

Insurance for the vehicle’s owner could also be much more expensive than motorists are used to today, in order to cover the potentially huge liability costs.

UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper hailed the act’s Royal Assent, stating, “Britain stands at the threshold of an automotive revolution. This new law is a milestone moment for our self-driving industry, with the potential to change the way we travel forever.” He added that while people can still choose to drive themselves, the legislation paves the way for self-driving vehicles on British roads by 2026.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, industry response has been optimistic.

Mike Hawes, CEO of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, called it “a watershed moment for UK automotive innovation and road safety.” He emphasised that self-driving vehicles would revolutionise society, and the new law positions the UK among a select few global markets with established regulatory frameworks.

Public opinion in the UK remains mixed, however. An RAC survey found that 58 per cent of respondents were apprehensive about fully autonomous vehicles, and only 15 per cent believed they would make streets safer. The RAC’s head of policy, Simon Williams, pointed out practical challenges, such as navigating the UK’s complex road network with its numerous potholes and faded markings.

A key element of the new law is preventing manufacturers from falsely marketing their vehicles as ‘fully self-driving’. This issue has already affected companies like Tesla, which has faced legal troubles in the US over claims that some executives knew of defects in Tesla’s semi-autonomous system.

MORE: All autonomous driving stories

Autonomous driving in Australia?

Australia is working towards implementing a comprehensive regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles, with key legislation expected by 2026 – although this date was offered in the distant past of 2021, with little public comment offered in the time since.

The National Transport Commission (NTC) is spearheading these efforts, focusing on creating national consistency and a new regulatory body to oversee the safe deployment and operation of automated vehicles​.

The proposed legislation, known as the Automated Vehicle Safety Law (AVSL), aims to regulate the safety of autonomous driving systems throughout their lifecycle – and, like the UK, legal responsibility would rest with the manufacturers, described by the NTC as Automated Driving System Entities (ADSEs).

Trials of autonomous vehicles are already underway in Victoria, Western Australia, and South Australia, with initial applications focusing on smaller-scale, route-specific shuttles rather than regular privately owned vehicles.

Industry groups are optimistic for a future of autonomous driving, but concerns have been raised around the timeline and the readiness of infrastructure to support this technology. Likewise, the safety and cybersecurity aspects of these vehicles remains an issue that will impact public trust if not managed appropriately.

Would you travel in an autonomous vehicle if made available and legal in Australia?

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