Britain will see its first trials of automatic cars in 2015, according to ministers. But there are still considerable obstacles to overcome, experts warn.
The government has this week promised that driverless cars will appear on UK roads as soon as next year.
But insurance experts are warning that there are sizeable legal and regulatory hurdles to be cleared before automatic vehicles become a reality in Britain.
£10 million up for grabs
Business secretary Vince Cable said on Wednesday that UK cities would be able to bid for a share of a £10 million fund to run trials of driverless vehicles.
These trials could start as early as January 2015.
In California in May, technology firm Google demonstrated its driverless cars to journalists from around the world.
A pilot scheme run by Volvo is already underway in the Swedish city of Gothenberg.
Cars have ‘huge potential’
Ministers in the UK are looking both at vehicles which have no human control, as well as cars where a driver can take the wheel when needed.
Transport minister Claire Perry said: "Driverless cars have huge potential to transform the UK’s transport network – they could improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, particularly CO2.
"We are determined to ensure driverless cars can fulfil this potential which is why we are actively reviewing regulatory obstacles to create the right framework for trialling these vehicles on British roads."
But it may take a lot of time and effort to clear these obstacles, especially when it comes to insurance.
Significant safety implications
James Dalton is head of motor at the Association of British Insurers.
He said: "The insurance industry is working with government, vehicle manufacturers, regulators, the legal community and through the industry’s research and repair centre on this potentially life-changing and life-saving technology.
"Although further research needs to be carried out, with human error accounting for around 90% of road accidents, the potential safety implications of autonomous technology are significant."
According to the ABI, liability would still be likely to rest with the human driver in cases when they were able to take over the controls of their vehicle.
But where the cars were fully automated, this liability could be entirely transferred to manufacturers and/or other road users in the event of an accident.
Premiums could fall
Simon Douglas, director of AA Insurance, said: "Driverless cars will need a fresh approach to insurance.
"Motor insurance is based on risk and much of the cost of a policy is associated with the driver - such as age, experience, past claims and convictions.
"If that element is largely removed then driverless cars could potentially attract significantly lower premiums than conventional vehicles, providing the technology that operates them demonstrably reduces the likelihood of a collision."
Douglas added that if underwriters were confident that driverless vehicles did in fact reduce the risk of accidents, policy prices would fall quickly.
David Bizley, technical director at the RAC, said: "Driverless cars offer a number of significant benefits but many of these depend on solely having these vehicles on the road.
"Therefore the biggest question for society has to be how we manage the transition from having just a few of these vehicles on the road initially to having a mix of both driverless and driven vehicles to finally having just driverless vehicles."
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