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Government Gives Green Light To Driverless Cars

The Government has announced that it is to change the law to allow autonomous cars that do not require a driver to be tested on British roads. The changes are due to be implemented to allow the trails to commence from January 2015.

The Government has announced that it is to change the law to allow autonomous cars that do not require a driver to be tested on British roads. The changes are due to be implemented to allow the trails to commence from January 2015. The law will be updated to accommodate the move and the Highway Code will also be altered to account for the new vehicles. The new cars use a variety of technology to ensure they can safely navigate on public roads. This includes accurate GPS systems that work with electronic maps to let the car know where it is on the road. Laser and radar technologies are also deployed to let the car ‘see’ what is around it and avoid any obstacles. 
Early versions of autonomous cars were simply standard models that had been modified to include the new technology. In some cases this was due to regulation. In California, for example, the law stated that driverless cars were only allowed if there was a human driver in the driving seat, able to take control of the car with conventional controls should something go wrong. This legislation was relaxed, however, and this allowed Google to press ahead with what might be considered the first purpose-built driverless car. 
Revealed in May this year, the new car has no steering wheel or control pedals. Instead, the cabin contains just two seats and two buttons: one to start the car and one to stop it should an emergency occur. Everything else is left to the car’s computers. The passengers simply summon the car via a smartphone app and tell the car where they want to go. The current model is an electric vehicle and is restricted to 25mph but there is no technical reason why the car could not be petrol driven and travel at motorway speeds. Google says that its aim is for these cars to ‘shoulder the entire burden of driving’.
While exciting, the new cars are not without their critics. Top Gear’s former Stig, Ben Collins, for example, has said that he is terrified at the thought of such cars. He says that there is far too much to go wrong with the technology for the cars to be an adequate replacement for human drivers and maintains that the motorist should always be in charge. Motoring campaigners have also voiced their concerns and surveys of drivers show that there is substantial resistance to the idea. 
So far, the UK Government has decided to insist on a human driver being present in the trials of autonomous cars on public roads, resisting the temptation to follow California’s lead in allowing completely autonomous vehicles. A document outlining the new regulations said: “These vehicles will have a driver present but are capable of driving fully independently, using knowledge of the environment in which they are driving. Fully autonomous cars remain a further step, and for the time being drivers will have the option and responsibility of taking control of the vehicle themselves. Vehicle manufacturers and their systems suppliers continue to explore the opportunities for full autonomy.”
The RAC’s technical director, David Bizley highlighted the public’s concerns regarding the spread of driverless cars, saying: “The biggest question for our society has to be how we manage the transition from having just a few of these vehicles on the road at first to having a mix of both driverless and driven vehicles and then finally having just driverless vehicles.”
International law is also changing to accommodate the new technology and the United Nations Convention on Road traffic has been altered to allow driverless cars on the road so long as they can be ‘overridden or switched off by the driver’.
The potential benefits of autonomous cars will almost certainly outweigh the initial reluctance of drivers and overcome legal issues. The technology is such that they can drive much faster and closer together without any reduction in safety. This is because they can ‘see’ obstacles much more accurately than humans and react more quickly. They can also communicate with one another to warn of upcoming hazards. This will allow more cars to be accommodated on the current road network, reducing congestion and minimising investment in new road infrastructure. 
The new cars will also be able to be shared and used more like taxis, greatly increasing their utilisation and making them far more efficient than current cars. This will have a knock-on effect in reducing fuel consumption and cutting emissions.

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