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.