The British Government is spending unprecedented amounts of money on encouraging the development of cars that drive themselves. But the UK is little prepared for the disruptive and potentially devastating changes that such cars could bring to our streets, experts have warned.
While huge amounts of work is being done in the UK and elsewhere on such technology, towns and cities are continuing to work largely as they have with private, driven vehicles – by both governments and private car and tech companies – little is being done to change the cities they will drive around. That could become a problem if autonomous vehicles truly take over, as the government has both predicted and supported.
That’s because little is being done by either the Government or other bodies to ensure that the country is ready to embrace the challenges brought by such technology. Such challenges range from the everyday but significant problems of road space to the more unusual but no less damaging problems of terror and hacking attacks, experts warned.
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
The Budget laid out in November includes a full £1bn for high tech projects. That includes £75m to be spent on artificial intelligence, £400m for electric car chargers and £100m on clean car sales. All of that will pay for the future where autonomous vehicles are on the streets by 2021, the Government claims. Chancellor Philip Hammond backed that up with a series of public appearances during which he backed driverless cars.
The money is praised by the many experts who fear that the UK, and the rest of the world, needs to prepare for major changes coming to our streets. But it isn’t enough, many experts also say, and the Government needs to reconsider the streets themselves, and how they are able to deal with self-driving cars.
Hammond and his ministerial colleagues haven’t discussed how they see the future of the roads themselves, but have made much of the money they intend to spend and the future they intend that investment to bring about. However, some have claimed that the government’s hope of autonomous vehicles on the road by 2021 isn’t possible – potentially meaning it is failing on both counts.
“Hammond is attempting to position the UK as a hub for automotive innovation, which we definitely can and should be,” said Chris Green, chief risk officer at consumer car management company Regit. “Unfortunately, his completely unrealistic timescale renders the statement relatively useless. While there has been testing by the likes of Jaguar Land Rover and Oxbotica, the UK is very much lagging behind the world’s major players such as Google’s sister company, Waymo, who are currently undergoing level 5 testing.
“When it comes to autonomous technology there is a great deal that needs to be done in terms of regulation, insurance, infrastructure and education before driverless cars can be a legitimate and feasible option for the UK’s roads – and £540m for research and infrastructure will barely scratch the surface.”
Philip Hammond, for his part, is clear that self-driving cars are coming and that people need to prepare for them. He has given repeated warnings to workers that they need to retrain, though said less to town planners and other important people involved in getting cities rather than their workers ready.
“It will happen, I can promise you,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme soon after the Budget. “It is happening already … It is going to revolutionise our lives, it is going to revolutionise the way we work. And for some people this will be very challenging.”
The Government seems to embracing that challenge, encouraging people to get ready for the new world. But that instruction to change mostly seems to be issued to other people – the Government is still being urged to think about the various problems that will arise from the technologies they are investing in.
“It is crucial that we begin to address these issues today,” said Russell Goodenough, client managing director for the transport sector at Fujitsu. “Driverless cars could boost UK productivity by enabling employees to work while commuting, as well as reducing accidents on the road and reducing the amount of land needed for parking.
“The Government’s investment in the technology is to be welcomed, and it’s up to everyone in the transport sector to come together to agree exactly how this technology will work in the UK.”
“My concern is that, as with when private automobiles came on the scene back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, there wasn’t really any regulations that came out alongside that, and we just kind of adopted this new way of getting around wholesale, without thinking of the spatial implications,” says James Harris, policy and networks manager at the Royal Town Planning Institute. “How did this change where we live and how we work? We aligned that completely around the car and down the line that led to a million different problems.”