Blog Type, IPT Blog, Industry Sector, Transport, IPT | May 2016

Ensuring the UK is in the Fast Lane for Driverless Cars

Some 40 miles of roads in the Coventry are set to be equipped with technologies to assist autonomous or driverless cars.

It’s one of a number of projects aiming to develop driverless-car technologies that are benefitting from the government’s Intelligent Mobility Fund, with support from Innovate UK.

Another project is the ‘UK Autodrive’ programme which started last year and has seen Coventry cooperating with Milton Keynes to test driverless cars on roads, along with 15mph self-driving pods. Those pods are being assembled by the small Coventry firm RDM. Having sat in one of those ‘Lutz’ pods I’d be the first to admit that they look a bit odd. But don’t let that undermine the radical shift that such cars could well bring in the future.

Professor David Bailey, Professor of Industry, Aston University; Lord Borwick; and Ben Howarth, Policy Adviser for Motor and Liability, ABI

Indeed, Tesla, Google and Apple are all thought to be working on autonomous electric cars. And mainstream auto makers like JLR, Daimler, Volvo, Toyota and BMW – and critically major supply chain firms - are all pushing autonomous vehicle technologies in a big way.

Indeed, Tesla, Google and Apple are all thought to be working on autonomous electric cars. And mainstream auto makers like JLR, Daimler, Volvo, Toyota and BMW – and critically major supply chain firms - are all pushing autonomous vehicle technologies in a big way.

We’ll see autonomous car technologies creep up on us in coming years as features like traffic jam assist and highway autopilot become more common, before urban automated driving appears perhaps in a decade, and fully automated cars offering end-to-end journeys maybe from 2030 onwards.

So genuinely autonomous cars may not be here for a decade or more, but when they do become common they really could revolutionise urban transport.

Having a fleet of semi-autonomous electric or hydrogen cars to hail at our disposal in cities – the ultimate driverless ‘Uber’ on-demand taxi app - could help make roads safer, less congested and cleaner, and could free up occupants’ time to do something more useful or fun than driving.

City congestion could be reduced as old ‘steering-wheeled’ cars are replaced and people hail driverless cars with the tap of a smartphone app.

Not surprisingly, Google has made a $250m+ investment in the Uber on-demand taxi service through its venture capital wing.

The ill and immobile could enjoy much enhanced mobility and freedom. The young could access personal mobility without the need for a licence. Accidents and insurance costs could be cut dramatically.

High speed motorway cruising could be made much safer and quicker in computer controlled convoys, saving fuel.

And accidents could be avoided and so heavy crash safety features on cars could be reduced, thus saving more fuel – whether fossil fuel, electricity or hydrogen.

Analysts reckon that the social and economic implications could be significant: beyond the practical benefits, Morgan Stanley last year estimated that autonomous cars could contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy alone, with global savings estimated at over $5.6 trillion.

In the case of the UK, KPMG and the SMMT put the economic benefits here at over £50bn by 2030 and with wider adoption at over £120bn by 2040.

Of course, there could well be downsides for assemblers if far fewer cars are needed, although some analysts see a positive if cars are used more intensively so are replaced more often.

There may of course be downsides for society and individuals as well. Think of these hypothetical scenarios, for example:

  • Hackers gain control of driverless car networks and shut them down, or cause crashes;
  • Your partner’s divorce lawyer asks in court for a record of what journeys you have taken from your network provider.

So passengers in driverless cars will have enhanced freedom to move, but others may be monitoring where they go if drivers agree to share data; whether auto makers, suppliers, insurance firms, retailers and/or the state. That might require clearer regulation as to who gets access to data.

The UK is in a good position to develop driverless cars, with its strong research base (think of MIRA as well as engaged universities), its legal system, and its insurance and telecoms industries being world leaders.

But to maintain momentum the UK will have to step up investment in its digital infrastructure, maintain and update its code of practice on driverless car testing, consider minimum levels of cyber security, agree telecom standards with European partners, and think about issues around privacy and data.

Only this week, the law firm Gowling WLG, on behalf of UK Autodrive, has launched a ‘White Paper’ on data protection.

Let’s be clear: there are potentially big benefits here for UK economy to be seized, and implications for the auto industry, related industries and the wider economy and society from driverless cars. And when thinking of driverless cars of the next decade, think of the autonomous taxi. You won’t necessarily own a car but might summon one when you need one.

We could end up thinking about the ‘auto-mobile’ in a very different way.

Professor David Bailey works at the Aston Business School in Birmingham. His electric car already has an ‘always on’ internet connection.