The race to get ahead in the world of autonomous cars is heating up. Driverless car technology in the UK is being shifted up a gear with a £20m boost with investment into eight new projects.
As the likes of Google, Tesla, Apple, Uber and Lyft scrimmage against (and alongside in some cases) the established automakers to get the best cars out on the roads first, the government is making a small effort to try and get the UK up to speed.
More than 40 miles of dual carriageways and motorways will be fitted with sensors to track autonomous vehicles and to make sure they operate smoothly alongside other cars. It forms part of a plan announced by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, with a view to starting trials on public roads as early as next year.
The scheme being worked on by the likes of Jaguar Land Rover, Visteon, Vodafone and Siemens will aim to create the most advanced environment for testing autonomous vehicles in the world. The new trial will also assess how Wi-Fi technology can transmit data directly to passing vehicles, such as updates on traffic jams and road conditions. It should last two and a half years. Another scheme receiving a financial boost is a £2.2m research project to develop driverless shuttles for visually impaired people.
This doesn’t immediately bump the UK ahead of the curve – Google has already been testing driverless vehicles on public roads in America after all. This total investment will pale in comparison to the tech giant's efforts. It does though suggest the government sees these innovations as fundamentally important to the future of the automotive industry. And wants Britain to get a decent slice of the pie.
This latest research forms part of the government’s £100m intelligent mobility fund which was announced last year and has set the wheels in motion for Britain to work towards a goal of 10% of the market. Last year, trials in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry were bolstered by £19m worth of government funding. Business secretary at the time Vince Cable said the UK should benefit from what is expected to be a £900bn industry by 2025.
The announcement is a step towards bringing driverless cars into the mainstream, but firms beavering away on the technology won’t be getting ahead of themselves. There’s still much scepticism surrounding the legal challenges, technical issues and how driverless cars will navigate the nuances of unusual situations – such as police officers at an accident scene to wave cars past.
The latest injection of funds should encourage international firms to invest in the technology in Britain, but there's still the question of whether enough people will be convinced to overcome their fears of putting their lives in the hands of robots.