Driverless Cars Will Be on UK Roads By January 2015

The competition is on for cities to host test sites for autonomous vehicles, amid changes to road regulations.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

Image:Flickr/Stanford Center for Internet and Society

The UK government today announced that driverless cars will be able to get on the country's roads as early as January 2015, less than half a year from now. It's the latest push to attract research and development over to British shores—something the UK has been trying to lay a claim on since at least last year.

The announcement by business secretary Vince Cable follows chancellor George Osborne's promise of a £10 million ($17 million) prize to fund a testing ground for autonomous cars. Now, R&D projects can bid for that, with up to three cities set to get a share of the pot.

These schemes will see the first driverless cars on public roads; regular passengers (driverless drivers?) won't be zipping up and down the motorways in dorky little self-driving pods just yet. It's an open competition, and projects that want to be considered have to include a business partner and local authority partner, with a registration deadline of September 24.

"This competition for funding has the potential to establish the UK as the global hub for the development and testing of driverless vehicles in real-world urban environments, helping to deepen our understanding of the impact on road users and wider society," said Iain Gray, CEO of the Technology Strategy Board, in a statement.

He echoed the government's previous hopes that securing a front-row place the driverless car testing game now with large-scale urban tests could have economic benefits, saying it would "attract further investment, helping to establish new design and manufacturing supply chains, driving forward UK economic growth."

While the contest is exciting, signalling the first real foray of driverless cars on regular British streets, the change in regulations necessary to make this possible may have greater impact in the longer-term vision of autonomous vehicles.

A review into road regulations will be published by the end of 2014 and will take into account "the need for vehicles to comply with construction and safety regulations, traffic laws and relevant aspects of the Highway Code," as well as "licensing, liability and insurance and driverless regulations being put in place in other countries."

Changing the Highway Code and other road laws is a necessary step to pave the way for driverless car tech, given the slight barrier that it's not legal to have them on public roads until legislation changes.

This focus on regulation follows a report earlier this month that emphasised the need to regulate robotic and autonomous systems, including autonomous vehicles. Figuring out the red tape ahead of other countries could be a killer move in attracting investment and research and competing predominantly with the US, where Google has already tested its driverless cars on the open road in California.

Over in Europe, Sweden seems to be ahead of the game at the moment, with the BBC reporting that Volvo has permission to test 1,000 of its driverless cars in Gothenburg. But by fast-tracking their initiatives, the UK might pip them to the post, given that trial isn't scheduled until 2017.