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£20 million government funding and code aim to encourage driverless car tests in UK

The UK government has launched a £20 million fund for research and development into driverless vehicles and issued a code of practice that aims to make the UK the best place in the world for the testing of driverless technology.20 Jul 2015

The £20m fund is designed to be matched by industry, the Departments for Transport and for Business, Innovation and Skills said.

The government is asking bidders to put forward proposals on areas including safety, reliability, communication between vehicles and with the environment around them, and at how the technology can help to give an aging population greater independence, it said.

The new code is a 'light touch' framework that encourages driverless cars testing in the UK to begin almost immediately. The main message of the code is that driverless vehicle technology can be tested in the UK, provided a test driver is present and takes responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle; and that the vehicle can be used compatibly with road traffic law.

Test drivers must hold a valid driving licence, even if the vehicle is entirely in automated mode, and it is "strongly recommended" that the driver also has several years’ experience of driving the relevant category of vehicle, the code said. The driver must also always be capable of implementing a "manual override" at any time. 

The code covers insurance requirements, engagement with the public and the availability of technical advice on any usual features of vehicles to help the emergency services responding to any accidents.

The code has no legal status, but non-compliance could be held against the testing organisation if accidents occur.

The initiatives will put the UK "at the forefront of the intelligent mobility market", which is expected to be worth £900 billion by 2025, the government said.

Business secretary Sajid Javid said: "To boost productivity Britain will need to capitalise on new technologies like driverless vehicles, securing high skilled jobs … and contributing to a more prosperous future for the whole of the country,"

"Our world beating automotive industry, strengths in innovation and light touch regulatory approach to testing driverless technology combine to make the UK market competitive and an attractive destination for investors," he said.

Commercial law expert Ben Gardner of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "The code has non-statutory status and compliance with it is not legally binding. The government's stated ambition of establishing the UK as a centre of excellence for the development, testing and future commercialisation of driverless vehicle technology and the potential delay in developing a legally binding regulatory framework for the testing of driverless cars perhaps explain the approach it has taken."

In its regulatory review, the Department for Transport confirmed that those wishing to test in the UK would not be required to obtain permits or provide surety bonds, as is the case in other jurisdictions such as the USA, Gardner said.

"It appears that the government is looking to use a light touch regime to attract testers from all over the world to come to the UK to test their technology and further develop the UK’s already thriving automotive sector," he said.

"This is because having an overly detailed, onerous and restrictive code could dissuade car manufacturers and other organisations from wanting to test in the UK. Similarly, developing a legally binding regulatory framework for testing could take years and, at a time when other countries are considering their own approach to driverless vehicles, it is likely that the government did not want to risk losing potential testing organisations to overseas rivals," Gardner said.

Plans to publish a new code of practice were mentioned in a government report published in February. The report said that the UK's regulatory environment does not present a barrier to the testing of driverless cars on public roads.

A joint policy unit called the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (C-CAV) has also been set up by the two departments to coordinate policy on driverless cars and related technology. C-CAV is currently working on a range of technological developments, including plans to test roadside communication technology to improve traffic flow and safety in 'connected corridors', the government said.

The £20m announced today is part of £100m announced for research into intelligent mobility in the UK spring 2015 budget, it said.