Trials of self-driving cars on public roads in the UK could start as early as January 2015, the UK Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced today.
The technology, which has so far only been allowed on private roads, was supposed to see first trials integrating it into regular traffic in 2013 but was postponed due to regulatory issues.
Ministers have now 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.
To speed up the development, the Treasury has also said it would create a £10m prize to attract towns and cities interested in becoming a testing ground for autonomous vehicles. Up to three cities will be selected to run 18 to 36-month tests to enable researchers to fine-tune algorithms as well as sensor and camera systems to help safely integrate autonomous cars into city traffic.
"The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as pioneers in the development of driverless vehicles through pilot projects, said Vince Cable who, with Science Minister Greg Clark, tested a driverless car at the headquarters of motor industry research organisation MIRA at Nuneaton in the West Midlands.
"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."
Cable said the decision will not only enable the UK to become a leader of the technology which is already in testing in some cities in Japan, the USA or Sweden, it will also provide a boost to the UK’s automotive industry, creating new high skilled jobs.
Transport Minister Claire Perry said: "Driverless cars have huge potential to transform the UK's transport network. They could improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, particularly CO2.
"We are determined to ensure driverless cars can fulfil this potential which is why we are actively reviewing regulatory obstacles to create the right framework for trialling these vehicles on British roads."
The regulatory review will cover two main areas - cars with a qualified driver who can take over control of the driverless car and fully autonomous vehicles where there is no driver.
The UK’s motoring groups, however, were less enthusiastic about the announcement, saying users are not yet ready to accept autonomous vehicles on the roads.
According to AA president Edmund King, a recent AA/Populus survey showed that more than 43 per cent out of 23,000 surveyed AA members did not agree that UK legislation should be amended to even allow trials of the technology.
"Today's announcement takes us closer to seeing fully autonomous vehicles on our roads but it will take some time for them to become commonplace,” King said.
"Many drivers are still resistant to change as 65 per cent enjoy driving too much to ever want the vehicle to take over from them."
RAC technical director David Bizley said: "Many vehicles already have features such as automatic braking and it is claimed that driverless technology is able to identify hazards more effectively than a person can.
"But many motorists will be concerned about not being able to control the speed of their vehicle for the conditions or layout of the road in front of them."