Autonomous Systems ask new questions of the public, of engineers and of regulators, about what we expect of them and the condition under which we can and should trust them. Developing a shared answer to these questions is essential for the UK to become a leader in the development and deployment of autonomous systems and to realise the economic and social benefits, including substantial export and productivity gains.​

The National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC) has established a project on Safety and ethics of autonomous systems, led by a working group, which will provide engineering expertise and oversight of the project.  It includes representatives from a number of partner organisations: BCS: The Chartered Institute of IT, Engineering Council, Institution of Agricultural Engineers, Institution of Engineering and Technology, Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology, Institution of Mechanical Engineering and Royal Aeronautical Society. A list of Working Group members is included below

The project is being informed by a wide range of expertise from beyond engineering including philosophy, social science and ethics. Where possible we are taking opportunities to engage with different audiences including the public and international stakeholders to understand these points of view.


Establishing a regulatory environment fit for the future

Most autonomous systems will have to be regulated for product safety and occupational safety if humans are interacting with the systems. Barriers to innovation and adoption can arise when applicable regulations for products and services are unclear. Missing regulations and deviations between countries can complicate this further. Sectors are at differing stages in developing their regulations for autonomous systems, creating an opportunity to highlight common challenges and emerging best practice and unlock some of the issues faced by engineers and the public.​

​This project was launched at a cross-sectoral event on 2 July 2019 with the question “What is the regulatory step change required for safe and ethical deployment of autonomous systems?”. Expertise from industry, academia, regulators and government was convened through a series of panel discussions which investigated three main areas:

  • The risks and benefits of autonomous systems
  • The regulatory step change required to mitigate such risks
  • The range of non-regulatory mechanisms that can be used to support development of autonomous systems in the meantime

The panel discussions and wider audience Q&A themes of trade-offs, trust, ethical risk and challenges to assuring safety. A full event summary can be found below.

Project overview - safety and ethics of autonomous systems (809.19 KB)

These event findings will be explored and tested through deep dives in specific sectors, for example transport and healthcare. And will consider what is unique about developing autonomous systems in that sector and the specific challenges that need to be overcome for safe and ethical deployment. These workshops were framed with a series of questions across a series of challenges: technical, ethics, oversight, regulation, professional responsibility and public acceptance.   

Questions posed to the maritime community (632.09 KB)


Understanding public opinion

To engage in public dialogue and gauge opinion on self-driving vehicles we held an event at the Science Museum Late, Driverless: who is in control? in August 2019. We asked members of the public to express their greatest hopes and fears for self-driving vehicles and to consider who was responsible for safety, mapping their opinions on a wool wall.  

The wool wall provided a tactile way to engage the public in a conversation about self-driving cars. It enabled participants to reflect and consider the options and encouraged conversation and questioning between friends.



There were mixed emotions about self-driving cars across the 185 participants, with over 40% rather dubious of the prospect. However, 34% of people were excited and a further 18% finding the prospect of self-driving cars mind-blowing.




Creating a responsible profession

Autonomous systems create new ethical challenges because the continually changing environment and increasing system complexity mean the initial intentions of a designed system can drift. There is a clear opportunity for the engineering profession to embed ethical practice.

We convened a discussion at the Policy Centre Plenary in July 2019, that brought together perspectives from industry, academia, engineering institutions and the profession regulator. Aware of the ethical risk autonomous and intelligent systems can pose to life, law, environment and public good, the engineering community are already taking action;​

  • Industry have ethical frameworks in place and are defining ethical design guidance​
  • Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering have updated the Statement of Ethical Principles and established a joint Ethics Reference Group to take a leadership role both within and outside the profession
  • Professional Engineering Institutions (PEIs) are running training courses for members on the ethics of those sectors technologies
  • BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT has defined the scope of the ethics component of the AI Industrial Masters which will be embedded in the teaching of this programme
  • The professional engineering institution more broadly, are championing inclusion in the engineering profession and supporting the development of diverse interdisciplinary teams​



Thinking globally

Autonomous systems will play an important role in global challenges. We held a workshop at the 2019 Global Grand Challenges Summit and gathered views from an informed intergenerational audience, from different cultural perspectives with an interest in engineering for sustainable development.

Groups were asked to consider one of a number of global challenges for example the ageing population in Japan or urbanisation in Jakarta. The groups were presented with a of number of applications of autonomous systems and asked to consider how these might be deployed to support the series of ethical questions.

  • What are the social, economic, environmental and political component affecting the problem?
  • What technologies might you deploy?
  • Who will benefit?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • Who needs to be involved for deployment at scale?
  • Where might tensions lie between the separate technologies and between the community and the technology?



This workshop reinforced the importance of multidisciplinary working. It highlighted that international context matters and technology shouldn’t be deployed without consultation with those who will be affected.

Try out the the workshop by downloading these resources (8.60 MB)




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Working Group Members

  • Professor Muffy Calder OBE FREng FRSE FBCS
  • Andrew Chadwick
  • Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal FREng FIET FRAeS
  • Dr Chris Elliott MBE FREng FRAeS
  • Professor Michael Fisher FBCS FIET
  • Dr Sylvain Jamais FIMechE
  • Professor Nick Jennings CB FREng FIET FBCS (Chair)
  • Professor Marina Jirotka FBCS
  • Professor John McDermid FREng FBCS FIET
  • Gordon Meadow FIMarEST
  • Dr Robert Merrall FIAgrE
  • Catherine Millar
  • Professor Paul Newman FREng