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Has The UK Just Made Itself The Best Place To Test Self-Driving Cars?

The driverless Lutz ‘Pathfinder’ Pod in central London. The British government launched the first official trials of driverless cars Wednesday, and plans to set hands-off rules to encourage testing.

The race to fill our roads with self-driving cars continues.

The United Kingdom just became the best place on earth to develop self-driving cars. It’s placing no geographical limitations on tests, not requiring special licenses or permits, and even opting not to require additional insurance.

Meanwhile, here in the States, efforts to regulate driverless cars have resulted in an ungainly and complicated patchwork of rules. The few states that have laid down laws each require their own combination of special training for test drivers, examinations by the DMV, and out of the ordinary license plates. The federal government is behind its own deadlines for offering national guidance.

“The aim is to achieve a light-touch, non-regulatory approach which provides the clarity industry needs to invest in further research and development while maintaining safety,” the Department for Transport said in a report published Wednesday. And that’s got to sound good to the automakers like Audi and tech companies like Google who hope to make driving passé.

The inevitable arrival of self-driving cars—the first of them should hit showrooms by the end of the decade—will be a paradigmatic shift. Basic notions about how we test, buy, insure, and regulate vehicles will not apply. Things like assigning blame after a crash and determining who’s allowed behind the wheel get a lot trickier once you drop the assumption that a human is driving the car.

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Automakers aren’t against regulation, but they’d like to have a uniform set of rules—which is precisely what the UK just gave them. “It’s good to have clear regulations, on what to do to test those systems safely,” says Daniel Lipinski, who leads Audi’s autonomous driving program.

Under the “code of practice” the UK expects to finalize within months, companies like Nissan, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Google, and Delphi will be allowed to do just that. Those that have finished preliminary testing on closed tracks and want to begin real-world testing need only have a trained driver at the wheel and an on-board data recorder gathering information about the car’s speed, location, steering and braking inputs, and whether the car’s in autonomous mode.

Though the government notes that the question of liability in an accident is “ultimately a matter for the courts to decide,” it expects companies doing testing “to take responsibility for ensuring the safe operation of the vehicle at all times.”

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“Driverless cars are the future. I want Britain to be at the forefront of this exciting new development, to embrace a technology that could transform our roads and open up a brand new route for global investment,” says Transport Minister Claire Perry.

Along with the report, the Department for Transport announced $29 million in funding for three driverless car trials: a shuttle in Greenwich, a “pod” in Milton Keynes and Coventry, and a Wildcat developed by BAE Systems in Bristol. We’ll assume these are worthwhile projects, but they won’t change the industry. The shuttle, for instance, is branded with the warning: “Caution: Slow Moving Vehicle.”

Which might make people wonder: Will this news draw the field’s bigger players to ole England?

Source: Wired