Cyclists have criticised proposed changes to the Highway Code which will allow self-driving car users to watch television while in motorway congestion, describing the measures as ‘terrifying’.
The Department for Transport (DfT) today announced that, following a public consultation, updates will be made to the Highway Code which will lay out the responsibilities of motorists using self-driving cars.
While vehicles that can drive themselves are currently not permitted on the UK’s roads, the DfT claims that Britain’s first approved self-driving cars “could be ready for use later this year”, with the planned changes set to come into effect this summer to support the early deployment of the technology. A full regulatory framework is expected to be implemented in 2025.
The Highway Code revisions will allow the users of self-driving cars to view content that is not related to driving on built-in screens. However, as the DfT points out, this is likely to only apply when the vehicle is travelling at slow speed, such as in congestion, on motorways.
According to the proposals, motorists must be ready to resume control of the vehicle if prompted, such as on the approach to motorway exits.
It will, however, still be illegal to use mobile phones when the car is in self-driving mode, “given the greater risk they post in distracting drivers”.
The changes will also state that insurance companies, not individual motorists, will be financially liable for crashes involving self-driving cars.
“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,” Transport minister Trudy Harrison said in a statement.
“This exciting technology is developing at pace right here in Great Britain and we’re ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when it takes to our roads.
“In doing so, we can help improve travel for all while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain’s place as a global science superpower.”
However, the proposed changes have provoked a mixed reaction among cyclists and other road users.
The failure of the government to understand that it is essential to distinguish between fully self driving cars and Level 3 where full attention is required at all times. There is no halfway point where u can watch films but still be ready to take over This will kill people!
— Christian Wolmar (@christianwolmar) April 20, 2022
Transport commentator and cycling advocate Christian Wolmar, who sits on the board of the London Cycling Campaign, tweeted in response to the DfT’s statement: “The failure of the government to understand that it is essential to distinguish between fully self-driving cars and Level 3 where full attention is required at all times.
“There is no halfway point where you can watch films but still be ready to take over. This will kill people!”
Illustrator Steven Falk said: “As a keen cyclist, the thought of encountering self-driving cars, with ‘drivers’ watching films rather than the road, terrifies me.”
The Guardian’s political correspondent Peter Walker, however, noted the limited scope of the government’s proposals:
Unless, of course, car firms persuade governments that fitting transponders to cyclists, pedestrians is the responsible thing to do/‘if it saves one life’ etc.
— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) April 20, 2022
Not all cyclists, it must be said, are opposed to the DfT’s vision of a driverless future:
Am I the only cyclist who thinks they can only be an improvement on the current human/idiot-driven machines? Assuming they’d be programmed to give space when passing etc it’s win-win isn’t it?
— AledElwyn (@aledelwyn) April 20, 2022
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.