driverless cars are moving into the fast lane and will be seen on Britain’s roads in a matter of months.
Autonomous vehicles, guided by computer-controlled sensors and cameras, will be permitted on public roads from January for a series of trials lasting between 18 and 36 months, the UK government announced yesterday.
A review of road safety laws and a new multi-million-pound research fund were also unveiled to accelerate the development of self-driving technology.
UK engineers, including a group at the University of Oxford, have been experimenting with driverless cars. But concerns about legal and insurance issues have so far restricted the vehicles to private roads.
And motoring groups have warned that road users will be wary of the innovation.
The technology was given the go-ahead by ministers after a prototype was tested at the headquarters of motor engineering firm Mira, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.
Speaking after trying out Mira’s network-guided test car – which uses wireless communications to cut fuel consumption and increase driving efficiency – UK science minister Greg Clark said: “Britain is brilliantly placed to lead the world in driverless technology.”
Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as pioneers in the development of driverless vehicles through pilot projects.
“We 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.”
Mr Cable, who admits he doesn’t even have sat-nav in his car, launched a £10 million fund for driverless car research in the UK, jointly funded by the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The fund was first announced by Chancellor George Osborne in December as part of the national infrastructure plan.
UK cities will be able to bid for a share of the money to host the trials, with up to three being selected by the end of the year.
A review of road regulations will cover two areas of driverless technology: cars where a qualified driver is able to take over control, and fully autonomous vehicles where there is no driver.
The news comes weeks after internet giant Google unveiled the design for its prototype self-driving car.
Driverless vehicles are already in use in a number of countries, including the United States, Japan and Sweden, but motoring organisations say UK drivers will not be rushing to relinquish control.
David Bizley, technical director at the RAC, said: “Many vehicles already have features such as automatic braking and it is claimed driverless technology is able to identify hazards more effectively than a person can.
“But many motorists will be concerned about not being able to control the speed of their vehicle for the conditions or layout of the road in front of them.”
AA president Edmund King said a survey of more than 23,000 of its members showed nearly half did not agree that UK legislation should be amended to even allow trials of the technology. He said: “Many drivers are still resistant to change, as 65 per cent enjoy driving too much to ever want the vehicle to take over from them.”
But Tim Edwards, principal engineer at Mira, insisted humans were “still technically in the driving seat”. He said: “It’s opening the door to being able to go and do these tests. I don’t think there’s anything to fear.”
In 2013, Nissan carried out Japan’s first public road test of an autonomous vehicle on a highway. In Europe, the Swedish city of Gothenburg has given Volvo permission to test 100 driverless cars – although that will not happen until 2017.
Self-drive cars refer to vehicles that take charge of the steering, accelerating, indicating and braking during most, if not all, of a journey between two points, much in the same way aeroplanes can be set to autopilot.