To lead driverless car race we’ll need to change perception of “horrified” Brits

The UK is leading the way in developing the cars of the future, with the industry acting as a catalyst for wider economic benefits that could create more than 300,000 jobs and deliver a £51bn annual boost to Britain by 2030, the SMMT suggested in 2015.

With the benefits being clear, the government pledged £100m to fund research last year, building on the £19m it had already put into four projects around the country. This was followed by transport minister Robert Goodwill promising to offer “light touch” regulation so manufacturers would find it easier to test and develop driverless vehicles.

Essentially, Goodwill claimed Britain was offering a “green light” to driverless technology, with no repeat of the 19th century “red flag laws” that limited speeds and required someone with a red pennant to walk ahead of cars. This, he said, was due to our one key advantage over many European nations: the UK never consented to the Vienna Convention, which requires every driver to always be in control of his/her vehicle. This means Britain does not need to make any major legal changes to start testing automated vehicles on roads.

But in order to maintain its leadership status, the UK needs to tackle two problems: technological savvy and a regulatory framework that would encourage people to use self-driving cars.

Britain already has some excellent technology in the field, with companies such as Ultra Global PRT and institutions like Oxford’s Mobile Robotics Lab being dedicated to boosting the industry. Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement of backing driverless car trials on UK motorways in his 2016 Budget speech will also help accelerate the sector ahead of global competitors – the US has approved testing of driverless cars in California, Nevada and Florida, while Japan ran tests of its own in 2015 on a public highway and Gothenburg has been given approval to begin tests in 2017.

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Osborne claimed he would soon be launching a consultation on how to remove further barriers, with a £15m “connected corridor” to be built between London and Dover to enable vehicles to communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles. Trials will also be carried out on “truck platooning”, with fleets of connected trucks driving in a line on UK roads.

The right regulatory framework is definitely being set in place, but this could be seen by some as a bold move or even a futuristic long shot by Osborne. In reality, automation has been creeping up on us for years and this is simply the next step in the digital journey. So the real question becomes: what would it take to get the general public to readily accept more automotive autonomy?

While we all “ooh” and “aah” about how cool driverless technology sound – many have suggested it would make them feel like they were using a Johnny Cab from Arnold Schwageneger’s “Total Recall” – we don’t actually seem to hold a lot of faith in them.

While in the early days the car was a symbol of freedom, enabling people to drive off into the sunset, the reality is very different. It’s frustrating sitting in traffic, which ultimately leads to people getting distracted. It becomes a safety issue, and that’s proof that people can’t wait for a driverless car. But let’s face it, we don’t like not being in control of our safety. In fact, some even classed the concept as “horrifying”, with a survey by Opium revealing that only 39 per cent of Brits would even consider buying a driverless car.

And while 37 per cent of young drivers were happy with some level of autonomy such as cruise control and anti-lock brakes, a complete technological takeover was difficult to accept. This illustrates that one of the biggest hurdles manufacturers and the government will have to jump is the public’s perception of safety, particularly given reported safety issues – recent news of the Google car crash certainly isn’t helping.

That being said, it’s crucial that the government makes real moves towards defining the regulatory changes that need to be addressed. It’s also vital that perfection isn’t set as the default benchmark during test phases and that what is aimed for is a realistic and marked improvement on human errors.

It would also mean mitigating the risks of cybercrime within the industry. Whenever new technology is developed, hackers are fast to react – identifying vulnerabilities and potential avenues for attack. The potential to hack and gain control of connected vehicles is a real threat. We are yet to see this translate into actual attacks, however, as with any crime, it is just a matter of requiring a motive. If driverless and connected vehicles are to become commonplace in the UK, as suggested by Osborne, then it’s crucial that security is a key consideration right from the manufacturing stage.

Driverless cars offer big benefits for consumers and the economy alike, but in order to move past the UK’s charge in real-world experimentation to the actual implementation of driverless cars, then changing public perception has to be high on the government’s list.

February 2015 saw Uber begin using talent from Carnegie Mellon University to develop driverless technology. Some six months later, the cab company is reportedly ready to invest in 500,000 autonomous cars in a bid to beat Google and Nissan.

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