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19 May 2016

The Queen’s Speech and tech: Spaceports, Driverless Cars and high speed Broadband

The government’s proposed Modern Transport Bill and Digital Economy Bill give the speech a modern facelift.

By Hasan Chowdhury

On Wednesday, the Conservative government’s proposed new laws were laid out by the Queen in the annual State Opening of Parliament. In total, 21 measures were announced, including the expansion of academies into the poorest local areas, greater powers to intervene in potential extremist activity and a levy on sugary drinks from 2018.

However, perhaps more notably, bills were introduced which seemed designed to place Britain at the forefront of scientific and technological advancements: the Modern Transport Bill and the Digital Economy Bill.

Spaceplanes, spaceports and driverless cars

In a bid to revolutionise the transport system, the Modern Transport Bill proposes support for two different forms of futuristic travel: space travel and driverless cars.

Spaceplanes and commercial spaceports have been on the cards for a number of years, and the bill suggests six locations scattered around the UK cited as potential homes to the spaceports.

Recently, Cornwall has taken pole position out of the six sites. However, building a spaceport would cost at least £150 million, and there are doubts around whether there is a commercial market for it. Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society told the BBC that the UK is “not the ideal location” to have a commercial centre for space flight due to the sheer distance from the equator.

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Meanwhile, the aim is to get driverless cars on the roads within four years, following the success of self-driving car trials funded by the government in Milton Keynes in 2015. Perhaps aiming to prop up confidence in the technology, the Bill promises that any such transport system would have “appropriate insurance”.

The case for incorporating these cars into UK transport networks is strong: improvements to safety, reductions in emissions and an estimated global market value of almost £1tn globally by 2025 are all selling points. Though, to make these cars practical, the government will have to address key issues surrounding inevitable software vulnerability, by outlining security that can be employed to safeguard the cars from system breaches.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn criticised the bill during the Queen’s Speech debate: “If anyone wants to deliver a more equal society, an economy that works for everyone and a society where there is opportunity for all, it takes an active government to do it, not the driverless car heading in the wrong direction that we have with this government at the present time.”

High-speed Broadband Connections

The Digital Economy Bill promises a broadband connection for every household, with compensation given to anyone whose internet struggles to reach a speed of 10Mbps. The bill would also allow Ofcom to “review the speed over time to make sure it is still sufficient for modern life.”

The move to increase access to faster broadband would be welcomed, as many people in rural areas continue to be affected by sluggish internet speeds. But there are concerns that the UK’s infrastructure isn’t equipped to deliver the faster internet any time soon, and local government in remote areas may have to contribute financially towards the required installations.

The Takeaway

In her speech, the Queen said: “My government will use the opportunity of a strengthening economy to deliver security for working people, to increase life chances for the most disadvantaged and to strengthen national defences.” The bills highlight a determination by the government to firmly establish itself amongst global competitors in the push to advance a technologically-mediated society. The ambition is there, but we may have to wait sometime to see it come to fruition.

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