A report released today by The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has warned that the UK risks missing out on the benefits of driverless vehicles unless urgent government action is taken.
The report, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles: The future? establishes key recommendations surrounding policy as well as investment decisions that should enable the UK to maximise the economic benefits of autonomous vehicles. This includes the establishment of a robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) leadership council to ensure that knowledge and activity is shared across multiple sectors, as well as the improvement of mobile networks to better enable machine to machine (M2M) connectivity and data sharing, both crucial aspects of the driverless experience. The report also states that while guidance on and implementation of strategy should be a governmental priority, state funding should be limited in order to encourage cross-sector investment, especially from technology-based organisations.
The Committee highlighted the need for new road and communications infrastructure. An ideal situation would of course be to redesign the infrastructure of the UK's towns and cities in a way that incorporates the technological capabilities that allow AVs to operate safely. However, in the absence of a bottomless budget to enhance the country's physical infrastructure, technology will need to be developed to fill the gap, for example by improving in-built components for AVs such as cameras, sensor chips, in-car networking, roadway mapping and machine learning so that autonomous vehicles are less reliant on the built environment. Indeed, just this week, technology giant Intel has purchased an Israeli driverless-car technology firm called Mobileye for $15.3bn, signalling another technology company's clear commitment to the commercial opportunities represented by AVs.
The introduction of a leadership council with the primary objective of developing strategy for the implementation of AVs actually fits with our earlier recommendations that a regulatory framework designed specifically for the needs of AVs needs to be urgently developed. The current governmental approach - which is cautious and focused on taking one step at a time where regulation and the development of technology is concerned - is of benefit where budgets are limited and the technology is new. However, there is a risk that the regulatory agenda is set by the commercial players in the market and by their speed to market rather than by UK Government and its wider social agenda. This is important because where AVs are concerned there are clear ethical issues relating to safety, mobility and sustainability that have to be addressed within the core foundations of the industry's development - and this can only come from robust regulation. While the leadership council is the right tool with which to facilitate this, there is a vital need for the support of an independent regulator in order to qualify the robustness of any legislation that is developed which we recommended in our 2016 report The Moral Algorithm. Relying on existing legislation just isn't feasible where AVs are concerned: for example the existing GDPR data protection legislation relies heavily on the consent of the consumer which is not adequate in practical terms. For example, were this to apply to the operation of a driverless vehicle, an individual would need to indicate a range of individual preferences before starting any journey. That in itself may discourage take-up and thus delay or even prevent the achievement of the safety benefits of AVs.
To date, there has been a major focus on consumer concerns around AVs and acceptance issues. The Gateway Consortium has implemented an £8m project in Greenwich will trial a series of different use cases for automated vehicle with the aim of better understanding public perception, reaction and engagement with the vehicles. It is hoped that the trials will help introduce automated transport more widely. UK Autodrive is also in the process of compiling a report that looks closely at how to address these perceptions while KPMG produced a 2015 report in conjunction with the SMMT that looked at the potential economic opportunities of AVs. Finally, Gowling WLG has taken a look at the potential investment opportunities for driverless vehicles by surveying 1000 UK investors about their appetite for getting involved in the sector, as well as when they see AVs realistically being on our roads. Although almost two-thirds see this being within the next ten years and 10% are already investing in the sector, an overwhelming majority (70%) require more information in order to make an informed decision - thereby echoing the need for robust regulation and guidance.
This investor feedback is being addressed it seems as report recommends that the Government should continue to support scientific research in robotics and related information technology at academic institutions, to ensure that the UK continues to have a world-leading research base. This is, of course, vital, especially given the rich and deep rooted R&D environment that has flourished in this country.
Overall, the publication of this report marks another positive step for the future of AVs in the UK and it is assuring to see that the government takes seriously the urgent need for a tailored regulatory framework that properly protects the ethical as well as commercial aspects of making driverless a reality.