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.



Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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