"Is this car driverless? How does one tell?" Photo: Getty
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Nearly half of MPs don't want to spend any money preparing for driverless cars

Mostly because they don't know much about them.

This article was originally published on the New Statesman's sister site about cities, CityMetric. Follow it on Twitter @CityMetric

On the face of it, the UK seems to be getting into the fast lane (sorry) when it comes to driverless cars. This month, four British cities began testing the technology, in a £10m scheme launched by business secretary Vince Cable. Next month, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin is expected to announce that the cars could be on the roads within the next two years.

But now, it looks like MPs may be putting the brakes on (yes, we know). In a poll conducted by Dods, 47 per cent of surveyed MPs said that the government shouldn't invest any further in driverless car research:  

This isn't great news for the UK's burgeoning industry: while the development of the cars themselves could be funded by private companies, the government will still need to spend time and money rewriting the Highway Code to reflect the presence of driverless cars on the road. We'll also need to make changes to insurance policies, since an autonomous vehicle doesn't fit in with the current system, in which it's the driver that's insured and therefore responsible for accidents. 

Helpfully, it looks like many MPs aren't aware of any of this. When asked how driverless cars would affect road safety, 42 per cent said they had no idea...

...and when asked how driverless cars could affect the motor insurance industry, 51 per cent said they didn't know that, either.

Dods' researchers note that the "resounding statistic" from their study is the "general lack of knowledge amongst our legislators on the impact of autonomous vehicles".  Might be time to do some reading, guys. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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