Is the UK ready for self-driving cars?

The government is working with academia and industry to unlock the potential of autonomous vehicles in improving national connectivity.

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When I was asked by the prime minister to take on a new role as the first minister of state for transport technology and innovation, I was thrilled, and have set out three core missions to tackle: disconnection, decarbonisation and digitalisation. My job is to comprehend and create the right conditions to drive technological progress in the transport sector, and to ensure that the United Kingdom has the infrastructure in place to support the profound, sweeping changes it could usher in for everyday journeys.

Transport innovations could tackle congestion, pollution and disconnection – improving our environment and ending social isolation. The benefits, of course, are not only environmental and social, but economic, and there is clearly a major strategic opportunity for the UK to become a global leader in the future of transport.

While this work is wide-ranging, the development of self-driving vehicles is one of the areas that has perhaps most captured the public’s imagination. Once the domain of science-fiction, the reality of self-driving and automated vehicle technology on our roads is coming closer, with huge potential for our society and economy.

For example, the successful deployment of these technologies could mean fewer road traffic collisions and deaths. Automated systems, unlike humans, do not get tired and may react more quickly, removing the element of human error from the road. Self-driving vehicles could also “communicate” with infrastructure and other vehicles, reducing congestion by using road space better.

Their deployment could help tackle social isolation, allowing disabled and older people to enjoy the freedom of travel many of us take for granted. A great example of technology-aided community initiatives are the self-driving pods that have been developed by Aurrigo in partnership with Blind Veterans UK. Equipped with accessible features including bright-colour edges, door openings, and an external sound system that changes tone and rate when objects in the path are detected, these pods could truly transform travel for disabled people.

The government has been consulting with the public on the future integration of self-driving vehicles into the UK’s road network and it is fantastic to hear that the majority of the feedback it has received has been positive. Importantly, respondents to its survey noted the value of self-driving vehicles in helping to connect and support disabled or less mobile members of society.

So, the opportunities presented by this pioneering technology are significant and recognised by the public, and the government is keen to get the infrastructure and ecosystem in place to get their rollout right.

To this end, I recently attended the launch of an “Autonomous Village”, a self-driving vehicle testbed in Bedfordshire with 70km of secure test tracks, a private mobile network and a simulator suite. This new facility, Millbrook Proving Ground, will allow for systems to be safely challenged and data to be collected, aimed at developers of software, sensors, 5G telecommunications and cyber security systems. Millbrook Proving Ground is part of a £200m investment by government and industry in Testbed UK, a series of world-leading testing sites for connected and automated vehicles in the UK. That’s on top of £240m funding from government and industry for R&D projects involving over 200 organisations, off-highway trials, feasibility studies, and testing sites.

Of course, the right “infrastructure” does not just mean physical space, but the legislative and regulatory environment. The UK’s Code of Practice for testing automated vehicles, first published in 2015, is recognised as one of the most open and flexible in the world. It makes clear that automated vehicle trials are possible on any UK road provided they are compliant with UK law.

Our code has since been strengthened and updated, with those carrying out trials expected to publish safety information and to carry out risk assessments. The Law Commission is also continuing their review of UK legislation to prepare for the mass deployment of automated vehicles in the future, representing the most comprehensive approach to the problem to date. Members of the public have told us that safety and security are some of their main concerns about self-driving vehicles, which is why we’ve stepped up our focus on making sure the right environment is in place to make sure these vehicles are deployed safely.

I also recently announced that the government, in partnership with industry and academia, is developing a new safety regime. This new safety assurance system – called CAV PASS - will ensure self-driving vehicles are safe and secure by design, ahead of their testing, mainstream sale and wider use on UK roads.

People are at the heart of all our transport policies, and our support for new technologies is predicated on their needs. We are consulting with public transport and road users to ensure their views are heard and reflected as we head closer and closer to a revolution in the transport industry. This is new terrain, but the UK has the physical and regulatory infrastructure to a trailblazer as the leading test-bed for self-driving vehicles - and to see the establishment of a transport system fit for the future.

George Freeman MP was appointed minister of state for transport technology and innovation in July 2019.