Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced two new measures that give the go-ahead for driverless cars to take to UK roads from January 2015.
UK cities can now bid for a share of a £10 million competition to host a driverless cars trial.
The Government is calling on cities to join together with businesses and research organisations to put forward proposals to become a test location.
Up to three cities will be selected to host the trials from next year (2015) – and each project is expected to last between 18 and 36 months and start in January 2015.
Ministers have also launched a review to look at current road regulations to establish how the UK can remain at the forefront of driverless car technology and ensure there is an appropriate regime for testing driverless cars in the UK.
Two areas of driverless technology will be covered in the review: cars with a qualified driver who can take over control of the driverless car and fully autonomous vehicles where there is no driver.
Speaking at vehicle engineering consultancy, test and research facility, MIRA, yesterday where he tested a driverless car with the Science Minister Greg Clark, Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as a pioneer in the development of driverless vehicles through pilot projects.
“Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society.”
The driverless cars competition is being funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport, in partnership with the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board.
Successful projects must be business-led and need to demonstrate close collaboration with partners such as technology developers, supply chain companies and manufacturers.
BVRLA chief executive Gerry Keaney said: “It’s clearly very early days, but the right legislation and incentives could help our members add driverless vehicles to their fleets, enabling many people to have greater access to this technology.”
However, the Road Safety Markings Association (RSMA) has said the initiative will be hampered by the daily routine of roadworks, potholes, worn road markings, burst mains and failed traffic lights.
“By 2025, at least half the travel on Europe’s roads will be in vehicles that can read the road ahead including markings and signs,” said George Lee, national director of the RSMA.
“But vehicles, like drivers, cannot function if basic road markings and signs are non-existent, non-compliant, worn out, obscured, inconsistent or confusing.”
Thatcham also weighed into the debate by suggesting more testing is vital.
Peter Shaw, chief executive of Thatcham Research, said: “We fully support the automation of safety features such as braking/steering where the vehicle intervenes to avoid a crash.
"But we must recognise that fully driverless cars require a great deal more comprehensive testing and development before they can be made commercially available in the UK.”
He continued: “We are calling on the UK Government to materially support proposed financial incentives designed to encourage more car makers to fit existing Autonomous Emergency Braking technology as standard, and save more than 1,200 lives over the next ten years alone.”
Thatcham has been researching and testing AEB systems on behalf of insurers for the last three years and has carried out hundreds of tests on a wide range of new vehicles.
“The evidence from our testing is undeniable, and combined with a growing body of real world research and evidence, we firmly believe that AEB and other ADAS - Advanced Driver Assist Systems - have a critical role to play in safer roads for the future. Fully driverless cars may take a while longer to gain widespread acceptance,” he said.
Meanwhile, David Raistrick, UK Automotive leader at Deloitte, said: “Whilst the public has not yet embraced the concept of autonomous cars trundling around Britain’s roads, the reality is that, within a decade, technology advancements will allow driverless cars to become the norm.
“Today’s barriers to adoption largely came from UK legislation preventing driverless cars, coupled with the price entry point for this new technology.
“The Government’s announcement will remove some of these hurdles, whilst also encouraging the UK to become an early adopter. I would expect that as the technology advances, the prices will start to fall.
Raistrick continued: “The choice of the three pilot cities will be an interesting one, particularly with the initial number of autonomous vehicles not yet being clear.
“I would expect these cities to operate the vehicles themselves, using the £10m funding to acquire and run them, as limited additional infrastructure will be required.
“It will be fascinating to see which cities wish to apply for the grants and I expect many of the larger regional centres to be at the front of the queue.”
However, the introduction of driverless vehicles, in however small or large a number, may ultimately raise new challenges for the insurance industry, as we are a long way from the point where the autonomous vehicle is the norm.
Raistrick said: “The vast majority of vehicles on the road are controlled by human beings, so will a collision between a driverless car and a driven vehicle default to the driver being responsible?
“In a similar manner, manufacturers will find their customers’ requirements for a car changing completely.
“Engine size will becomes less relevant, as does driver experience, with the connectivity of the vehicle and the use of the internet and TV for example becoming more important.
“For the country as a whole, I believe the wider benefits are far more than just driver safety.
"It will potentially allow large haulage vehicles to become driverless, thus safeguarding other road users including cyclists and pedestrians, giving the elderly more mobility and allowing society as a whole to become safely connected whilst on the move.
“Computer modelling further suggests that as cars can then safely travel closer together, the existing infrastructure will accommodate significantly more vehicles, thereby reducing congestion.
“As with any new technology, there will be winners and losers. However, we are probably at least a decade away from widespread public usage.”