The UK government has confirmed planned revisions to the Highway Code to accommodate self-driving vehicles, including allowing drivers to watch TV while an AI takes the wheel.
In a moment history may judge as legislative hubris, the Department for Transport (DfT) said the modifications would include “allowing drivers to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens, while the self-driving vehicle is in control.”
However, somewhat counterintuitively, the Department added it would “still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode, given the greater risk they pose in distracting drivers as shown in research.”
The government said the proposed adjustments to the Highway Code would clarify drivers’ responsibilities in self-driving vehicles.
“The changes to the code will help ensure the first wave of technology will be used safely, explaining clearly that while travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way if they are prompted to – such as when they approach motorway exits,” the department said.
Self-driving vehicles, it added, could create around 38,000 new, high-skilled jobs within Britain’s industry that would be worth £41.7 billion by 2035.
Meanwhile, the DfT said it is developing a full legal framework for self-driving vehicles to enable the safer and greener movement of people and goods in the UK. The department will also work with industry, regulators, and safety organizations to ensure drivers can access information, including online, to help them use vehicles safely.
While large parts of the M20 have become a lorry park owing to a combination of computer glitches, lack of border staff, and Brexit red tape, the government has launched the new proposals under the heading “Britain moves closer to a self-driving revolution”.
Transport minister Trudy Harrison said: “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.”
Meanwhile, the actual arrival of self-driving cars on the UK roads seems further off following statements from electric vehicle messiah Elon Musk. Despite predicting five years ago that fully self-driving cars were just around the corner, they remain stuck in the garage.
In a recent TED interview, the Tesla CEO explained that full self-driving had been “particularly hard to solve,” comparing progress to a logarithmic curve that approaches – but never quite reaches – the line.
“There are just so many false dawns with self-driving, where you think you think you’ve got a handle on the problem, and then, nope, it turns out you just hit a ceiling,” he said.
“In retrospect, [it] seems obvious, but in order to solve full self-driving properly, you actually just have to solve real-world AI.”
Musk went on to explain that road networks were designed to work with a “biological neural net” – more commonly known as a human brain, the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution.
“In order to make [full self-driving] work with computers, you basically need to solve real-world AI and vision,” he said.
Musk then told the TED interviewer he is “confident” that Tesla will solve the problem this year, at least to the extent that self-driving cars will cause fewer accidents than the average person. Whether that is acceptable enough for their introduction is another debate.
So if Musk’s track record is anything to go by, UK drivers may have to wait years before they can enjoy the season climax of Bridgerton while jammed in a narrow Cornish lane after passing a hand-written sign saying “do not follow your satnav!” at the turn-off. ®