The UK government has announced that self-driving cars could be on British roads by 2026, after the country’s Autonomous Vehicles (AV) Act became law on Monday (20 May). 

Although the industry has hailed the legislation as a step in the right direction, some have remained sceptical that the technology and infrastructure in the UK are ready for it. 

“While this doesn’t take away people’s ability to choose to drive themselves, our landmark legislation means self-driving vehicles can be rolled out on British roads as soon as 2026, in a real boost to both safety and our economy,” Transport Secretary Mark Harper said in a statement.

The AV Act comes just weeks after UK-based AV giant Wayve raised over $1.05bn in a funding round by SoftBank Group, Nvidia and returning investor Microsoft.

What is the AV Act?

Until the passing of the AV Act, the UK had allowed driverless cars on public roads but held tight restrictions against AV companies wanting to test new technologies. 

The newly enacted law requires all self-driving vehicles to pass a safety test which proves it is as capable as human drivers. According to the government, future deaths and injuries from drunk driving, speeding, tiredness and inattention could all be drastically reduced.   

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The AV Act also sets out a legal framework on who is liable for AV crashes. The UK government has assured drivers that they will not be held responsible for how their vehicle drives while on autopilot. For the first time, corporations such as software developers and automotive manufacturers will assume this responsibility.  

In order to further support AV safety on UK roads, the approval system will be supported by a independent incident investigation function. The government said this will promote the same culture of continuous improvement which has made Britain’s aviation industry one of the safest in the world.

Companies will have ongoing obligations to keep their vehicles safe and ensure that they continue to drive in accordance with British laws, the government said.  

Paul Newman, CTO and co-founder at UK-based AV software company Oxa, said the Act gives the UK “new momentum as developers like Oxa will need to comply with the world’s most comprehensive AV laws to deploy technology in vehicles here.”

“Meeting the highest AV standards will make British companies global leaders with technology that is the safest and AI systems the most trusted – all key to building business and public trust in autonomy globally,” he added.

Will the UK be ready for self-driving cars by 2026?

Although the move has been welcomed by most, some have remained sceptical about the towering challenges the industry has yet to overcome.

Despite the growing hype throughout the 2010s and a clear vision of bringing mobility to sections of the market that have never before had access; such as children and the disabled, the challenges and roadblocks to full deployment of AV have been immense.

According to GlobalData’s Thematic Intelligence: Autonomous Vehicles (2023) report, the leap taken from Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 1 autonomy to Level 2 has proven to be minor compared with the jump in complexity needed for Level 3 ‘eyes-off’ AV operation.

The SAE defines six levels of driving automation ranging from 0 (fully manual) to 5 (fully autonomous).

Even Level 3 vehicles will appear simple in comparison with the higher levels and capabilities demanded by truly self-driving Level 4 and Level 5 models, both of which might not include controls for human drivers, according to the report.

However, according to Dr. Rana Charara, a strategic market leader in global industrial tech provider Trimble’s autonomy division, self-driving car technology is ready and capable – but the Highway Code, infrastructure, and other unknowns need to change before increasing the fleet of autonomy.

“The technology at the forefront of self-driving vehicles is already in use and fully capable of supporting more autonomy,” Charara said. “A suite of sensors, augmented satellite signals, and ever-learning AI software can ensure geographic data accuracy of up to a few centimetres on the road.”

Charara believes that moving from Level 4 and 5 autonomy will be a difficult process, and much harder to plan for in busy, dynamic and urban environments.

“Some infrastructure may need to be re-designed, cities made smarter and perhaps even digitally interconnected, and ideally, 5G coverage extended,” Charara said. “The Highway Code will also need to be considered; for example, how will an autonomous car react when it has to technically break the law by crossing into the other lane to overtake a cyclist?”

It is clear that the AV industry in the UK is piquing the interest of investors, as venture financing deals in the country have been increasing since 2021, according to GlobalData’s deal database.

So far in 2024, Wayve's financing round has placed the total deal value at $1.05bn, a significant increase over 2023, which totalled $765m.

According to GlobalData forecasts, global AV sales of Level 4 and 5 in 2030 are now expected to number 250,000 units. However, that is expected to rise to 4 million by 2040.