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Britain has ambitious plan for driverless cars, but roadblocks remain

Britain announces program to fast-track driverless cars, but legal obstacles remain

Britain has announced a plan to fast-track driverless cars, meaning self-driving cars could hit public roads by early 2015.

It is the first sovereign state to make such a large-scale and public commitment to testing the cars, experts said.

“It’s an early statement by a national government that this is a policy priority," said Bryant Walker Smith, an associate law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies the legal implications of driverless cars. “I wouldn’t say we’ve seen a similar announcement, say, by a U.S. federal agency.”

The British government is also promising to review current driving laws to better accommodate driverless car technology, but the country might still have some legal obstacles to tackle.

For one, the 1968 U.N. Vienna Convention on Road Traffic requires that every moving vehicle have a driver, and that the driver must always be in control of a car while it’s moving. 

The treaty has been ratified by more than 70 countries, including the U.K. and many European countries, which use it as the basis for their driving laws. Some European leaders view the 46-year-old treaty as an obstacle to legalizing driverless vehicles, Smith said, and have been trying to change it for years.

But key nations agreed earlier this year to amend the treaty, and the change will probably to go into effect sometime next year.

Still, Smith said, complex issues such as licensing, liability and insurance for driverless cars haven't been worked out.

Officials in Britain said their review will look at those issues and will publish its results at the end of this year.

Some other governments have been supporting driverless car research: Japan has done testing of  automated “platoons” of trucks, which travel in a convoy with the aim of reducing drag and CO2 emissions and improving highway traffic.

And the European Union helped sponsor a demonstration involving low-speed, driverless shuttles that ferried passengers at London Heathrow Airport and in cities such as Rome and La Rochelle, France.

For more breaking news, follow me @cmaiduc on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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