The connected and autonomous vehicles industry is expected to be worth an estimated £52bn to the UK by 2035, with the automotive industry bracing for major change over the next decade.

The anticipated benefits of driverless vehicle technology include fewer collisions caused by driver error, increased productivity, reduced congestion and new and inclusive mobility services.

However, for the benefits of the cutting edge technology to be fully realised, some form of driverless car regulation is vital. With this in mind, the British Standards Institution has launched a programme intended to provide guidance on the technical standards necessary to deploy autonomous vehicles in a way that is safe, but also ensures the UK remains at the forefront of innovation.

Guidance for driverless car regulation

Along with the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, the Department for Transport, Innovate UK and Zenzic, the BSI has committed to establishing an advisory board bringing in leaders from the UK CAV industry to investigate what form standardisation could take across areas such as safety, testing, data, cybersecurity, CAV infrastructure and human factors.

The product of this will be two Publicly Available Specifications relating to safety of automated vehicle development and testing, scheduled to be published in early 2020.

Although driverless cars present a number of exciting opportunities, with this comes a number of risks. Mobility companies are under pressure to deliver autonomous vehicles safety amidst public scepticism. In this context, what form should regulation take? And is there a danger of over-regulation?

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Maximising safety and innovation

There are currently over 70 different test projects underway in the UK, with several startups including FiveAI, Oxbotica and Smart Mobility Living Lab all looking to bring the technology to UK roads. Currently, the majority of driverless car testing takes place in controlled environments, but as autonomous vehicles make their way onto public roads, they bring with them a host of legal and ethical questions. Who is responsible for a driverless car crash? How will they interact with non-autonomous vehicles? And are UK roads ready for their deployment?

Questions such as this have led many to call for the establishment of a regulatory framework. Nick Fleming, head of transport at the British Standards Institution (BSI) believes that widely accepted standards play a particularly important role:

“There are significant potential benefits from realising connected and automated vehicles on the road. These range from greater mobility for consumers and the public, accident reduction, and better integration with the traffic network.

“But also, what comes with that is barriers, technical barriers, and other kinds of barriers. And in our work, we’ve really been looking at what the role of standards is in helping to overcome those barriers. And the legal and regulatory landscape is still very new, and it’s emerging. But really, the role of standards there is to make sure that innovation can happen in a safe way. And the role of standards is really to provide some of those fundamentals that are needed.”

With fully autonomous vehicles predicted to be on UK roads by 2021, the question of the form driverless car regulation should take is an urgent one. The UK has set up a government department, the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV), and the Law Commission is currently reviewing the regulatory framework for the safe deployment of automated vehicles in the UK.

However, as well as mandatory driverless car regulation, the establishment of industry standards (where compliance is voluntary) is another important route.

Daniel Ruiz, CEO of Zenzic says that those within the industry are looking at different ways to ensure technology is deployed safely:

“I think the way we keep up is by recognising that there are a number of instruments they can use the keys and standards is one. You’re already working back from things that take quite a long time to implement, and things faster and more immediate and readily applicable.

“But then you go into the longer term and you’ve got legislative instruments, statute acts of government. And there is a law commission review on the way, which is going to be a three yearly cyclic review ongoing which is looking at really what is needed to regulate. They’ve got a very keen eye on what needs to be regulated for safety, but also how you can maximise safety through innovation, not just maximise safety through blocking.”

Balancing the regulatory environment and technological development

When it comes to fast-moving technology, regulators often struggle to keep up. According to Forbes, this has resulted in guidelines for autonomous vehicle deployment in the US being “fragmented across a patchwork of state directives and voluntary guidelines”, and regulators are keen to avoid a similar scenario in the UK.

Last year, junior transport minister Baroness Sugg said that the UK government was holding off on developing legislation as the rate of technological development means that “it is not possible at this stage to state what [future] changes will be”, addressing the difficult task of balancing driverless car regulation with innovation.

Ruiz explains that it can often be difficult to balance innovation and safety, with a risk that over-regulation could slow progress:

“Our job is to make sure that they are rolled out rapidly as possible that we reap the social economic benefit, but they can only be rolled out rapidly if safety is considered as security considered first and foremost. And that will start to sound like you’re suppressing innovation and suppressing creativity and slowing stuff down and we’re constantly bouncing backwards and forwards between safe, unsafe, fast, slow, innovate, be a luddite. One of the challenges we have is to is to balance the regulatory environment and the innovative environment.”

The consequence of a failure to adequately regulate is already being seen in shared mobility. Many cities have seen new shared mobility solutions flood the market, which has led some regulators have felt the need for outright bans on some new forms of transport.

However, with startups and established mobility giants such as Uber, Tesla and Waymo all keen to be pioneers in the self-driving car sphere, there is a risk that a regulation-free “wild west” could damage progress in this area. Ruiz believes that the consequences of this could be significant:

“One of the challenges we have is to is to balance the regulatory environment and the innovative environment. the initial logic would say well, don’t have any regulation, don’t control things don’t have requirements for boring, linear certification, let things go feral. And the risk there is actually the thing that goes feral. Or you get vehicles that are designed for the individual occupants or for the individual owner or individual user. And this to the disadvantage of society as a whole. And therefore, so the disadvantage of the economy as a whole.”

In March last year, the first recorded death caused by a driverless car occurred in Tempe, Arizona, causing Uber to halt its self-driving car tests. Although with the vast majority of traffic accidents the result of human error, incidents like this highlight the need for robust policy.

Ruiz therefore believes that taking an agile approach to standards is a promising middle-ground:

“While we’re not trying to shortcut that process, because it’s what’s needed and it’s what makes the standards fit for purpose, we’re recognising that things are changing very rapidly. So we’re basically trying to make sure that the way we work with industry allows us to be more agile in how we develop the documents…they should expect to see is quite frequent revisions of standards.”

Collaboration is key

To ensure that this happens, collaboration is vital. Fleming believes that involving the major players in the autonomous vehicle industry in the process is key:

“We will be working with organisations that may on in their day jobs be competing with each other, but they all agree they need standards. And that does involve an element of trust and transparency. And I think that’s our role to kind of create that safe space…there’s a large number of r&d projects and trials are underway in the UK that have finished and you can’t have 60 or 70 different standards emerging, because that doesn’t really help anyone in the long run.”

UK government also has a key role to play, according to Ruiz, with the Future Mobility Grand Challenge a key part of its Industrial Strategy:

“There is definitely a collaboration between government and industry, a recognition that there are short term risk that government needs to help industry get over. And that sometimes means money and sometimes policy statements. And then then industry will pick up the reigns and drive things through.  There is half a billion of industry government investment going into this mission so far. The commitment from Government as expressed in the future mobility grand challenge, which is part of the industrial strategy, is as strong as ever.”

Although the US, is often thought of as the epicentre of driverelss car testing, he believes that by being proactive in esablishing industrial standards, the UK has the opportunity to play a role in shaping international standards and driverless car regulation:

“What we’re playing on in the UK is the fact that we have a lot of key people who are leading thinkers and actors in this space, all interconnected and collaborating far more effectively than in most other countries. So leadership is implicit, because we are moving at a good rate and exemplified by this psi work. And that means that it is quality work, which means the rest of the world will follow…We are with our Test Bed UK, the leading country in terms of testing and development.”

Read more: What’s standing in the way of driverless cars? It could be you