Self-driving cars: DfT reveals plans to allow fully autonomous vehicles on UK roads by 2025

DfT says industry could create 38,000 jobs as it pledges £100m to research into auotonomous vehicles

<p>(Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)</p>

(Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Government is to invest £100 million in research and development as part of plans to bring self-driving vehicles to UK roads by 2025.

The Department for Transport said that the industry around autonomous vehicles could create 38,000 jobs and be worth £42 billion.

It added that some vehicles equipped with “self-driving” features could be available to buy in the next year as it pushes for the UK to be a global leader in the technology.

The latest plans, which expand on previous announcements around self-driving technology, will see new legislation introduced to allow the wider rollout of autonomous vehicles by 2025.

The Government says that driverless vehicles could ‘revolutionise’ public transport’ (Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

As well as private vehicles, the plans aim to support the development of fully autonomous commercial vehicles for public transport and logistics use with a view to them being approved for use by 2025.

Advertisement

The Government says that the development of self-driving technology could help revolutionise public transport as well as cut road casualties caused by driver error.

It is investing £34m in research to support safety developments to inform new laws. A further £20m will be used to help launch commercial self-driving services and another £6m will be used for market research and to support the commercialisation of the technology.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “The benefits of self-driving vehicles have the potential to be huge. Not only can they improve people’s access to education and other vital services, but the industry itself can create tens of thousands of job opportunities throughout the country.

“Most importantly, they’re expected to make our roads safer by reducing the dangers of driver error in road collisions.”

Safety standards

Many companies are working to develop autonomous vehicles which fully take over the driving responsibilities from human occupants, with some testing on public roads, but none is currently commercially available.

Advertisement

The Government said it was now consulting on safety around self-driving technology - including how it functions in bad weather and interacts with pedestrians - and planned to build new legislation around existing laws.

It said it would consult on a “‘safety ambition” for self-driving vehicles to be as safe as a “competent and careful human driver”. This ambition would inform vehicle standards and organisations, such as manufacturers, could face sanctions if standards are not met.

In a statement announcing the new funding it added: “Vehicles that can drive themselves on motorways could be available to purchase within the next year, which users would need a valid driving licence for, so they can drive on other roads. Other self-driving vehicles, for example used for public transport or delivery, expected on the roads by 2025, would not need anyone on board with a driving licence because they would be able to drive themselves for the whole journey.”

Today’s announcement is the latest in a series of ambitious government statements around autonomous vehicles. In April 2021 the DfT said legislation would allow cars with automated lane keeping assist (ALKS) on the UK’s roads within the year. Then in April 2022 it said the Highway Code would be updated with rules around ALKS-equipped cars, adding that “Britain’s first vehicles approved for self-driving could be ready for use later this year”.

Despite the Government’s wording, ALKS is not self-driving technology but a more advanced form of driver assistance. Furthermore, there are only two cars commercially available in the world with such level 3 systems, one of which is only sold in Japan.

Advertisement

What has been the response?

AA president Edmund King welcomed the funding for research and said that close attention must be paid to how any autonomous vehicles interact with other road users.

He commented: “The automotive world is changing rapidly and so the Government is right to embrace the positive changes offered by this new technology. Assisted driving systems, for example, autonomous emergency braking and adaptive cruise control are already helping millions of drivers stay safe on the roads.

“It is still quite a big leap from assisted driving, where the driver is still in control, to self-driving, where the car takes control.

“It is important that the Government does study how these vehicles would interact with other road users on different roads and changing weather conditions.

“However, the ultimate prize, in terms of saving thousands of lives and improving the mobility of the elderly and the less mobile, is well worth pursuing.”

Advertisement

Industry observers say that a focus must be put on educating drivers as well as developing the technology

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes also welcomed news of extra funding for research but said that a culture change would be needed for the technology to be accepted.

He said: “While self-driving cars offer the potential to make our roads safer and increase mobility for those who can’t currently drive, the jump from driver assistance to fully autonomous remains fraught with risks, so it is welcome news the Government is backing ambitious targets with more funding.

“RAC research also shows drivers like to be in control of their vehicle, so it would require a real culture change for the public to fully embrace driverless technology.”

Jonathan Hewett, chief executive at risk intelligence specialists Thatcham Research, said that the safe adoption of any new technology was vital and the car industry was “still at the lower end of a steep learning curve”.

He said: “It’s vital that we balance the risk with the opportunity, gathering intelligence on the different use cases for the technology and in turn understanding what it means for all road users.

Advertisement

“All the ingredients are present for the UK to become a global leader in this space. However, it is paramount that we make sense of the data these vehicles will provide, to inform risk and ultimately pave the way for safe adoption.”

He added that issues that needed to be considered reached far beyond the vehicle hardware and included clarity around driver responsibility, how the technology is labelled and marketed and even how dealers explain the systems to new owners.