The UK is to encourage the development of driverless cars on its roads, it was announced on Wednesday, with a multimillion-pound research fund and a review into the relevant laws around road safety.
The business secretary, Vince Cable, said a £10m fund will be made available for driverless car researchers in the UK, joint funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) and the Department for Transport (DfT).
“The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as pioneers in the development of driverless vehicles through pilot projects,” said Cable. “Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society.”
Fully autonomous and driver-equipped
The DfT will also kick off a review process of the laws governing road use, including the Highway Code and the Road Safety Act, to permit the testing of driverless cars on public roads, Cable said while visiting the technology and engineering company Mira in Nuneaton.
Two types of testing will be reviewed for public roads: fully autonomous cars without a driver, and those with a qualified driver who could take control at any time, similar to laws in the US where driverless cars have been tested on public roads since 2011 in some states.
The review process will conclude in a report submitted to government by the end of 2014, a spokesperson for DfT told the Guardian.
Research groups to apply for government money
The £10m fund will be governed by the UK’s innovation agency the Technology Strategy Board.
Interested local research institutions will be able to apply for funding by submitting a business case paired with a local city or authority as to why driverless cars are a viable transport solution in their area.
Three cities across the UK will be selected to host driverless car trials from next year, with each test to last between 18 and 36 months starting in January 2015. The deadline for driverless car research applications will be 1 October.
The fund was first announced by the chancellor, George Osborne, in December as part of the national infrastructure plan.
Google’s driverless cars hit headlines and the public consciousness in May, when the search giant announced a brand new bespoke prototype design.
‘A big leap of faith needed by drivers’
The UK has various groups already working on driverless car technology, including engineers at the University of Oxford and engineering firm Mira, which provides autonomous vehicle technology to the military and has been testing driverless cars on a 850 acre site in the Midlands.
“Today’s announcement takes us closer to seeing fully autonomous vehicles on our roads but it will take some time for them to become commonplace,” said Edmund King president of the AA.
“Cars are becoming more automated with the introduction of assistance systems to aid parking; keeping a safe distance from the car in front; or lane departure warning systems,” said David Bruce, director of AA Cars.
“However, there is a big leap of faith needed by drivers from embracing assistance systems to accepting the fully automated car. Two-thirds of AA members still enjoy driving too much to want a fully automated car,” Bruce said.
‘Britain brilliantly placed to lead the world’
“Driverless cars have huge potential to transform the UK’s transport network – they could improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, particularly CO2,” said the transport minister, Claire Perry, who committed to the regulatory review of road law.
“Britain is brilliantly placed to lead the world in driverless technology,” said the science minister, Greg Clark. “It combines our strengths in cars, satellites, big data and urban design; with huge potential benefits for future jobs and for the consumer.”
Driverless cars are expected to begin being tested on public roads in 2015, although the DfT could not provide a timescale beyond report submission to the government by the end of 2014.
“This competition for funding has the potential to establish the UK as the global hub for the development and testing of driverless vehicles in real-world urban environments, helping to deepen our understanding of the impact on road users and wider society,” said Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board.
“The ability to test driverless cars at scale, when married to the UK’s unique strengths in transport technologies and urban planning, will also attract further investment, helping to establish new design and manufacturing supply chains, driving forward UK economic growth,” Gray said.
Dr Geoff Davis, chief commercial and technical officer of Mira said he welcomed the news.
“Our 10 years of experience developing driverless car solutions with successful applications in defence and security as well as cooperative systems in road transport applications means we are already working on a number of projects that explore the potential of connected and cooperative driverless cars,” Davis said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010