Driverless cars to be tested in four British cities from this January

These Lutz pods will be tested in Milton Keynes. Image: Lutz.

Everyone’s excited about self-driving cars. After all, they’re cars that can figure out where they are and which way to go, without hitting anything! (Actually, they still haven’t figured out how to stop them hitting small animals. But still.)

The real test of the cars’ feasibility, though, is how happy people are to have them driving around on their streets. Driverless cars have been tested on public roads in Japan, Singapore, Germany and, of course, California, but they’ve yet to appear on British roads. And British residents don’t seem terribly keen on the idea: a survey of UK Automobile Association members, conducted in June, showed that 39 per cent of the 23,000 respondents didn’t want driverless cars on the roads at all.  

Despite this, the government has just announced the first four UK cities which will host driverless car testing from early next year. Bristol and Greenwich, a London borough, will host their own projects, while Milton Keynes and Coventry will share a third. All four bid for the honour as part of a competition opened up to all UK cities back in July; the finalists were chosen based on the viability of the test location and investment from local businesses. Testing will begin on 1 January and will last for anywhere between 18 and 36 months. 

The governent also announced a further £9m worth of funding for the tests, on top of the £10m promised in July. More funding will come from the private sector. 

The announcement has presumably come as a relief to UK-based producers of driverless cars, especially as the Department of Transport originally promised public UK road testing by 2013. When the test was first announced, Professor Ingmar Posner, co-leader of the robotics department of the University of Oxford, said: 

This will be really helpful as we look at how autonomous vehicles could help to ease traffic congestion and deliver a safer and more pleasant driving experience. It’s a real opportunity for UK cities to show how autonomous vehicles could be right at the heart of the urban transport systems of the future.

There are still a few hurdles to jump before autonomous cars can take to streets all over the country, however. While three of the four lucky cities will host pod and driverless car testing, Bristol will host something called the "Venturer Consortium". This excitingly named exercise will investigate the cars' potential effects on congestion, insurance and road laws. 

In the UK, changes to road law in particular will be more complicated than in other parts of Europe or the US.  That’s because, in the UK, vehicles aren't insured: drivers are. (After all, it's them who are prosecuted for breaking road law, and have to pay when they crash into things.)

So who is the responsible party when no one’s driving? Is it the car's owner? Or is it the company that created the car’s technology?

James Backhouse, director at Backhouse Jones, a practice specialising in transport law, said it's still not clear what the ramifactions would be:

There would be substantial changes, I would guess, to road traffic legislation and the highway code, because pretty much all transport legislation in the UK focuses on the driver. If you can’t enforce against the driver, I suspect they’ll enforce against the owner or keeper of the vehicle.

Until we’ve got the legislation to prosecute robots, that will have to do.



Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.