Driving a car safely is particularly complex operation. As well as steering their vehicle and managing their speed, drivers must also be fully aware of the situation outside their vehicle to avoid potentially fatal accidents.

This makes the recent announcement that UK authorities plan to allow self-driving car owners to watch television as they ‘drive’ comes as something of a surprise. Under planned legislation, owners of autonomous vehicles (like Tesla or similar) will be able to read books, watch TV or surf the internet as their car drives itself on public roads.

A vote of confidence in AI?

For obvious reasons, all these activities are currently banned on British roads because they distract drivers. Unable to devote their full attention to driving, vehicle operators are at far greater risk of being involved in an accident.

These proposed changes to driving laws suggest that the British government is increasingly confident in the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous cars. According to official research, human error (mistakes made by drivers) plays a role in 88% of all road traffic accidents in the UK. Clearly legislators believe that autonomous cars are smarter, and less error-prone, than human drivers – and that accidents will be less common as the technology becomes more widely available.

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With AI taking over driving duties, passengers will be free to spend the time doing whatever they like – including watching TV. There is one caveat however – drivers will still need to be ready to take control ‘just in case’ something goes wrong and they have to override their car’s navigation system.

Will these changes really happen?

Britain first banned drivers from watching in-car TV back in 1986, so the proposed changes are significant. But there are still likely to be some barriers before the law is changed.

First, the government needs to see conclusive evidence that AI-controlled vehicles really are safer than human drivers. Given that autonomous cars are still not legally permitted to ‘drive’ themselves on public roads in most of the world, it may take some time before legislators are able to decide whether this is true.

Second, the public too need to be confident that AI cars can be trusted. After decades of driver training and testing, people believe that humans can operate cars safely – and they too want to be certain that computers can do the same job.

This means that the changes to driving habits, including watching TV, remains nothing more than a proposal at this stage. The government can (and possibly will) change course, delaying new legislation until autonomous cars become commonplace on British roads. And that may still be another year or more away – especially as laws to permit self-driving cars that were promised last year have still not been enacted.