Introduction and Background

On 27 November 2017 the Government released its White Paper on the Industrial Strategy, bringing society one step closer to making driverless vehicles a reality for everyone. Some may recoil at the idea and argue that driverless vehicles are a creature of science fiction but it is happening, and is likely to become a reality very soon.

Driverless cars and, more generally, autonomous vehicles are not a new project; the Government has funded development in this area for some time. To give some recent examples: in December 2014, £10 million of funding was given for testing driverless cars in the real world; in February 2016 a competition was announced by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to invest up to £20 million in research and development (“R&D”) to speed up developments in autonomous vehicles; and prior to the White Paper, the Government awarded £109 million in April 2017, to help develop the next generation of driverless and low-carbon vehicles.

The White Paper

This White Paper shows that the Government has continued to increase its funding in industrial development. Just before the White Paper, Philip Hammond announced plans in the budget to raise UK spending on R&D from 1.7% to 2.4% of national income by 2027. The White Paper itself confirms this with the further aim to reach 3% in the long term. The Government hopes that extra spending on R&D now could result in around £80bn of additional investment in advanced technology in the next decade. Such a major increase could be said to be an attempt to keep Britain on the world stage for innovation post Brexit.

The White Paper outlines what the Government calls its four “Grand Challenges”. The aim is to keep Britain at the forefront of the artificial intelligence (AI) and big data revolution; invest in clean growth; lead on the forefront the future of mobility; and use innovation to meet the needs of an ageing society. It is hoped that autonomous vehicles may address more than one of these challenges.

News for autonomous vehicles

The White Paper states an aim to have driverless cars on the roads by 2021. The Government has previously taken a two pronged approach to achieving this, which is reflected in the currently developing Act: the “Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill 2017-19”. As the title suggests, the Bill is concerned with how autonomous vehicles will be regulated, as well as promoting the use and development of electric vehicles. This multi-disciplinary approach is taken one step further in the White Paper and with the Government’s Automotive Sector Deal, which works towards developments for electric, autonomous and low carbon vehicles.

It is probably good to see autonomous vehicles developing in a wider context. They will affect our entire infrastructure and will depend on further services such as connectivity, access to power, cyber security and even how roads are built. They will also raise further challenges to big data management and AI ethical decision making processes.

This multi-disciplinary approach is recognised in the White Paper, for example, by confirming that the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) will launch a new innovation prize to determine how future roadbuilding should adapt to supporting self-driving cars; therefore, influencing and adapting the future of road building to include considerations around autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles will use upgraded connectivity. £5m from the 5G Testbeds and Trials programme will be spent on an initial trial, starting in 2018, of 5G applications and deployment on roads, including helping to test future productivity benefits from self-driving cars.

The White Paper also sets out some aims and hopes with regard to how autonomous vehicles will address society’s needs.

Autonomous vehicles are hoped to benefit older people who may no longer be able to drive or have other difficulties with mobility. This addresses the “Grand Challenge” of meeting the needs of the ageing society. It is even hoped that congestion could be reduced through higher-density use of road space enabled by automated vehicles. This uses AI and big data management and addresses the challenge concerning the future of mobility. However, it is a rather unnerving thought that automated vehicles will be designed to drive closer to other cars, than we, as humans, are currently taught!

In order to deploy autonomous vehicles on the road, the regulatory framework needs to be ready for it. The Government recognises that driverless cars “raise important questions of the insurance liabilities and road traffic regulations”. In order to tackle this issue, the Government aims to develop an “agile approach” to regulation. What is meant by this though, is not elaborated on in the 255 page White Paper.

Summary

The Government wants to see fully self-driving cars on UK roads in the next few years. However, in order to bring us one step closer to driverless cars, the fine details certainly need tuning in such areas as: the adaptability of regulation; connectivity and access; cyber security of networks, the way roads are built; the development of AI to make ethical decisions and how data is managed.