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LAW PASSED: Self-driving vehicles set to transform UK roads by 2026

Updated: May 21

Image credit: Department for Transport

The UK Government's Automated Vehicles (AV) Act has become law, marking a significant step towards self-driving cars being a common sight on British roads by 2026.

Announced during the King's Speech, this pioneering legislation allows advanced technologies to operate vehicles safely within the country, positioning the UK as a leader in the regulation of self-driving technology.

The AV Act is expected to unlock an industry potentially worth up to £42 billion, while simultaneously creating 38,000 skilled jobs by 2035. Central to the new law is the enhancement of road safety. Automated vehicles are anticipated to reduce human error, which currently accounts for 88% of road collisions. By ensuring these vehicles meet stringent safety standards—equivalent to or better than those of a competent human driver—the law aims to significantly decrease incidents caused by factors like drink driving, speeding, and inattention.

The legislation not only underpins the UK’s ambition to be a frontrunner in emerging sectors such as AI and self-driving cars but also supports economic growth. Notably, British firms like Wayve and Oxa are at the forefront, conducting trials in London and Oxford. Wayve’s recent acquisition of over $1 billion in investment for AI technology development in the UK highlights the sector's robust growth.

Since 2018, the self-driving vehicle sector has attracted £475 million in investment and created 1,500 jobs. These vehicles are poised to revolutionise industries experiencing driver shortages, like haulage, and enhance safety in hazardous environments such as mining.

The AV Act introduces a comprehensive legal framework, a global first, detailing liability when vehicles are in self-driving mode. This means drivers are not held responsible for the vehicle's actions during this mode—instead, entities like insurers, software developers, and manufacturers will assume this liability.

An independent incident investigation body will ensure vehicle safety, fostering a culture of continuous improvement similar to that in the aviation industry. Companies will have ongoing obligations to maintain safety standards and adhere to UK laws.

The law also aims to improve the lives of millions by enhancing mobility, reducing isolation, and connecting rural areas. It opens up vehicle use to those previously unable to drive, significantly boosting transport accessibility.

This legislative milestone follows the Government’s commitment of over £600 million in funding since 2015 to support the self-driving industry. This investment has spurred the creation of innovative companies, developed the AV supply chain, and laid the groundwork for early commercial markets, firmly establishing the UK as a global leader in autonomous vehicle technology.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “Britain stands at the threshold of an automotive revolution, and this new law is a milestone moment for our self-driving industry which has the potential to change the way we travel forever.   

“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.” 

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said: “This is a watershed moment for UK automotive innovation and road safety in the UK. Self-driving vehicles will revolutionise our society, and this new law will help turn ambition into reality, putting the UK alongside a handful of other global markets that already have their regulatory frameworks in place.

“The industry will continue its close collaboration with government and other stakeholders to develop the necessary secondary legislation that will enable the safe and responsible commercial rollout of self-driving vehicles and the significant social and economic benefits they will afford the UK.” 


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