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Photo: Oxa press materials

AV Act paves way for self-driving vehicles to operate on UK roads by 2026

The UK Government has legislated for the use of self-driving vehicles on Britain’s roads by 2026 after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received Royal Accent today. According to a British self-driving software company, the new regulations will “ensure proper accountability up and down the AV supply chain, building public and business confidence”.

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The legislation, which was announced in the King’s Speech last autumn, will require self-driving vehicles to achieve a level of safety at least as high as careful and competent human drivers.

The UK Government’s view on the potential of self-driving vehicles

The UK Government claims the regulations could unlock the potential of an industry estimated to be worth up to £42 billion, and create 38,000 more skilled jobs by 2035.

“Road safety is at the heart of the legislation, with automated vehicles expected to improve road safety by reducing human error, which contributes to 88% of road collisions,” reads the Department for Transport’s press release.

Commenting on the legislation receiving Royall Accent, UK Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, 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.”

The UK Government also notes how the AV Act follows the launch of numerous self-driving trials, including Wayve and Oxa’s trials of self-driving cars in London and Oxford.

“Self-driving vehicles could support areas previously impacted by driver shortages, such as haulage, and where work can be dangerous, such as mining,” says the UK Government.

Moreover, the UK Government argues that trials show how self-driving vehicles can improve mobility and access to services, thereby reducing isolation and better connecting rural communities.

Liability

According to the UK Government’s press release regarding the AV act, when a vehicle is in self-driving mode, the human driver will not be held responsible for how the vehicle drives.

This means that corporations such as insurance providers, software developers and automotive manufacturers will have to assume responsibility.

State support

The UK Government stresses that it has also given significant backing to the country’s self-driving vehicle industry – providing over £600 million in taxpayers’ cash to the sector since 2015.

This funding, it is said, has helped to “create innovative new companies, build the AV supply chain and lay the groundwork for the early commercial market”.

The view from industry

A number of industry figures have responded to the news, including representatives of self-driving startups based in the UK.

One of those was Alex Kendall, Co-founder and CEO of Wayve, who said:

“This is a critical milestone for the UK’s deployment of self-driving technology and cements the UK as a global leader in regulating this sector. We are grateful to the government and all who have engaged with us in the conversation about the importance of this legislation. Self-driving technology promises a safer, smarter and more sustainable future of transport. There’s still some way to go with secondary legislation before we can reap the full benefits of self-driving vehicles in the UK, but we are confident the government will prioritise these next steps so this technology can be deployed as soon as possible.”

Also reacting to the new legislation was Jamie Hodson, Global Regulatory and Public Affairs lead at Oxa.

He expressed no shortage of enthusiasm and positivity regarding the AV Act, but acknowledged that more work needs to be done to have the regulations ready in time:

“There’s still a lot to do to get regulations ready by 2026, but the wider industry can be confident autonomous technology is a reality and can turn into commercial deployments soon. And, as we start to develop regulations, we also need to think carefully about how to deliver the technology to the communities that need it most; areas where the technology can achieve societal goals such as reducing congestion and emissions and giving drivers a desirable alternative to private vehicles,” said Hodson.

Hodson also explained the two main impacts of the legislation:

“First, it will create new legally accountable roles for the automated vehicle supply chain – including how safety responsibility is apportioned. Second, by defining risk accountability, the technology becomes more attractive to investors as developers have clear targets that systems must meet to be approved. Both these elements will build business and public trust.”

Another representative to offer comment was Mike Hawes, the CEO of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

“This is a watershed moment for UK automotive innovation and road safety in the UK. Self-driving vehicles will revolutionise our society, and this new law will help turn ambition into reality, putting the UK alongside a handful of other global markets that already have their regulatory frameworks in place. 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 and the significant social and economic benefits they will afford the UK,” said Hawes.

How Wayve and Oxa are faring

Earlier this month, one of the aforementioned companies, Wayve, announced a whopping $1.05 billion Series C investment round led by SoftBank Group, with contributions from new investor NVIDIA and existing investor Microsoft.

The company says it was the first to develop and test an end-to-end (e2e) AI autonomous driving system on public roads. Wayve also says it has successfully developed foundation models for autonomy, similar to a ‘GPT for driving’.

Oxa, meanwhile, have already begun trials of automated passenger vehicles to ferry passengers at US airports. In the UK, a trial of a similar service at Belfast harbour is due to begin next year.

Online supermarket retailer Ocado has also invested in Oxa, which has unveiled its concept for autonomous delivery vehicles that could transport Ocado products to UK households. Another investor is Google, who took a 3.5% stake in the company last October.

Oxa isn’t just focused on the US and UK markets either. The self-driving startup announced 3 years ago that it was working middle mile delivery operations with the likes of Carrefour, Día and Telepizza.

Other recent developments regarding self-driving commercial goods vehicles

Last month, German commercial vehicle manufacturer MAN achieved a milestone in autonomous driving with the first test drive of a Level 4 self-driving lorry on a public motorway. The ten-kilometre journey took place on the A9 Autobahn between Allershausen and Fürholzen junctions, with Federal Transport Minister Dr. Volker Wissing and MAN CEO Alexander Vlaskamp on board.

Meanwhile, DAF is also making strides in developing autonomous electric lorries. Their efforts are part of a broader European push for greener transportation solutions, with a focus on reducing emissions in the transport sector. DAF is collaborating with the Port of Rotterdam on a project named MAGPIE (sMArt Green Ports as Integrated Efficient multimodal hubs) which aims to develop a roadmap for achieving carbon-free transport in and around European ports by 2050.

Moreover, in March 2024, Scania launched its Autonomous Commercial Pilot Programme, which the manufacturer says promises “safer, more efficient, and sustainable driving”. Scania adds that its trucks equipped with its latest autonomous driving system have already hit European roads, describing the launch as a “massive leap” for autonomous trucks.

Another big player on the market is of course autonomous HGV manufacturer Einride, which in November announced the full-time deployment of one of its autonomous vehicles, which is being used to transport goods between the GE Appliances’ manufacturing facility and the warehouse in Selmer, Tennessee. More recently, the Swedish company announced an autonomous pilot in the UAE is slated for deployment in 2025 courtesy of a partnership with DP World.

Volvo is getting in the act too. Just this morning the company revealed its first “production-ready” self-driving truck made with autonomous driving technology company Aurora.

Volvo’s announcement comes just two weeks after fellow truck manufacturer Daimler unveiled its first autonomous truck demonstrator, which it said could be transporting goods autonomously by 2027.

Public concern

Although investors, manufacturers and governments appear enthused about the prospect of autonomous vehicles, a survey of 2,000 UK residents conducted last year suggested that the general public appear less keen on the idea.

The research, conducted by Aimpoint Digital, found that respondents highlighted the following concerns about autonomous vehicles in particular:

  • Safety of other road users (70%)
  • Increased risks to pedestrians (64%)
  • The technology’s inability to respond to real-life driving conditions (64%)
  • Job losses (52%)
  • Lack of regulation surrounding the technology used in autonomous vehicles (45%)
  • Fear of autonomous vehicles being prone to cyber-attacks or hacking (44%)

In addition to the above, respondents expressed reservations concerning environmental issues, legal complications, and the belief that self-driving vehicles would be less effective than driver-operated ones.