Driverless cars could be in full use on Britain’s roads by 2021, the government announced on Wednesday.
The new technology is a step closer after UK ministers announced plans to move forward on advanced trials for automated vehicles. A statement issued by the Department for Transport (DfT) says that the UK is “on track to meet its commitment to have fully self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2021.”
Plans to strengthen the code of practice for testing automated safely have also been outlined. The new regulations seek to ensure that anyone trialling driverless cars must publish safety information, trial performance reports and carry out risk assessments. They will also be required to inform the relevant authorities and emergency services.
The DfT described its announcement as a “major boost” to the UK’s market for connected and automated vehicles, which it estimates will be worth £52 billion ($67 billion) by 2035.
Transport Minister Jesse Norman said in a statement: “Thanks to the UK’s world class research base, this country is in the vanguard of the development of new transport technologies, including automation.
“The government is supporting the safe, transparent trialling of this pioneering technology, which could transform the way we travel.”
Yet any suggestion that driverless cars will soon be common place on British roads has been met with skepticism from some experts.
PA Consulting, a global innovation and transformation consultancy, has conducted extensive research on the viability of driverless cars.
Charlie Henderson, roads expert at the company, was lead author of a 2018 report, Autonomous vehicles: What are the roadblocks? He told CNN that while the research focused on Britain “the issues are relevant to all geographies.”
Henderson added: “To get autonomous vehicles working on the roads relies on six or seven factors, of which technology is one.”
Others include legislation, policing and insurance. According to Henderson, however, the most important is other road users. This issue was brought to the fore last year when a 49-year-old woman was killed while crossing the road in Arizona by a self-driving Uber vehicle.
“Road users are not just other vehicles but pedestrians and cyclists who need to learn to understand and be confident in how these vehicles are going to behave. You can design an autonomous vehicle to be super safe and drive along cautiously.”
This, according to Henderson, would lead vehicles to be “very, very slow”, potentially causing “gridlock” in urban areas and even accidents.
“What we need to do is think through a whole bunch of behavior changes, not just around the vehicles themselves but how people interact with them.”
The 2018 report concluded that widespread use of driverless cars is at least a decade away, though Henderson added that there is likely to be “limited use of autonomous vehicles in specific environments” by 2023 – such as driverless buses and agricultural vehicles.
Christian Wolmar is a transport journalist who has published numerous books, including “Driverless cars: On a road to nowhere.”
He told CNN the UK government announcement was “putting the cart before the horse,” adding: “The idea that they are thinking of allowing these cars on the streets before anything is ready is a mistake and might even put lives at risk.”
The public’s appetite for the new technology is perhaps not as large as the automotive industry might want to believe.
Nicholas Lyes, head of roads policy for the RAC motoring organization, told CNN that while he welcomed the new safety testing standards, RAC research from 2016 showed “62% of UK drivers were actually scared by the thought of truly driverless cars on the road, with only 27% believing they will make the UK’s roads safer.”
Lyes added: This suggests there is still an awful lot of work to do to convince people that the future of mobility really is all about vehicles that can drive themselves.”
A spokesman for the UK road safety charity Brake said that, “connected and autonomous vehicles have huge potential to eliminate driver error and put an end to the daily tragedy of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.”
The charity said it supports the leading role being played by UK government on this subject, adding, “it is vital that people and their needs are put at the center of this technological shift.”