Britain Will Rewrite Its Traffic Laws for Robocars' Sake

A woman looks at a prototype of a golf-cart-like, fully enclosed, driverless pod.
Photo: Dominic Lipinski/AP Photo
The Patherfinder driverless pod, which will be the first autonomous vehicle in the United Kingdom to operate in pedestrian areas

Britain plans to rewrite its traffic laws to account for robot cars, which take an all-too-literal approach to rules. 

“If everyone obeyed exactly what it said in the Highways Code, the roads would probably grind to a halt,” said Graham Parkhurst, head of an academic research program in Bristol, in an interview with the Telegraph. Parkhurst is also working on one of four pilot programs in British cities, each of which is testing out a different kind of low-speed vehicle.

Some changes will put a little more wiggle room in the law, to help robocars deal with aggressive human drivers. That way the robots won’t linger forever before changing lanes, nosing into an intersection, or laying claim to a parking spot. Other changes will redefine as legal such practices as tailgating, at least when done safely, as when robocars “draft” the car in front—a strategy known as platooning—to save energy that would otherwise be lost to air resistance. 

Britain’s flurry of activity on this front follows similar pronouncements in Germany and the Netherlands, and earlier ones in Japan, Korea and various states in the U.S.  Britain’s latest move goes  further than any other country has to welcome driverless cars to its roads, but the competition isn’t over by any means. All these policy shifts are mainly meant to improve the curb appeal of the various governments to companies developing autonomous vehicles.

The current British test cars are like the Google car, but less ambitious, because they mainly stay on sidewalks and go no faster than a golf cart. That makes everything much easier. At slower speeds you have much more time to react; among pedestrians you can stop at the least hint of a problem without getting rear-ended by the guy in back.

The four models use the entire range of sensors found on Google’s car, including laser range-finding, or lidar—and even add one or two that only make sense in close quarters and slow speeds. One car, for instance, even has touch-sensitive strips.

It’s all very good as an experiment, as much to probe pedestrian behavior as anything else. But maybe it’s better to think of it as part of a worldwide scramble by governments intent on getting their transportation sectors onto the on-ramp.


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