All cars travelling on UK roads may be fully driverless by 2050, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).
In a new study, it predicts that autonomous systems will take 10 years from now to be implemented onto the production line and a further 10 to 15 years for the majority of the UK fleet to be converted to the new technology.
IMechE said that highly automated vehicles, which include features such as adaptive cruise control and mapping of other road users, will be able to complete sections of a journey without driver control and could make up all UK cars by 2040.
Tesla has already added limited functionality such as this to its Model S sedans via an over-the-air update, although it is now scaling back the feature after some vehicles exhibited dangerous behaviour when using the feature.
The Institution believes that it will take a further 10 years for the majority of cars to become fully automated, where no input whatsoever is required from the driver.
“There are societal questions that need to be addressed before highly and fully automated cars are both accepted and legally able to be positioned on our roads; this will include having the right regulatory framework in place,” the report states.
It urges the launch of a public consultation involving manufacturers, legislators and regulators to consider how autonomous vehicles can be successfully integrated into the road network.
It is also claimed that making all vehicles autonomous could prevent up to 95 per cent of traffic accidents.
The majority of road accidents have been found to be caused by human error, a factor that would be negated if all road vehicles were automatic.
This would have the effect of drastically reducing insurance premiums for road users as vehicles get smarter and smarter (see graph below).
However, Philippa Oldham, author of the report, warned that "much more action" was required to promote the technology.
"We need to urgently resolve legislative, technological and insurance issues to help encourage the roll-out of autonomous or driverless vehicles,” she said.
"The benefits to this sort of technology are huge, with estimates that the overall UK economic benefit could be as much as £51bn a year due to fewer accidents, improved productivity and increased trade.
"Currently 95 per cent of all crashes happen due to driver error, so it makes sense for government, industry and academia to redouble efforts to look at how we phase out human involvement in driving vehicles. There needs to be much more action from government to help integrate driverless vehicles into the current UK transport network."
The report also urges the Department for Transport to address the safety issues of mixed road use, looking at how autonomous vehicles can be integrated onto our road network with appropriate road signage and markings in place or updated.
Earlier this month, the UK government announced it was allocating £20m to fund eight research projects looking at bringing driverless transport to Britain’s roads.
Andrew Miller, chief technical officer with Thatcham Research, said: “Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, we are on the cusp of the most revolutionary change in road transport for 120 years.
“There is a strong possibility that children born in the 2020’s will always expect a new car to drive itself – this could be normal.”
However, he warned that without immediate action, there is the potential for the market to demand the technology "faster than we in industry and government can keep up with".
Progress in promoting driverless research is accelerating more quickly in the US. It was revealed yesterday that US vehicle safety regulators have told Google that an artificial intelligence system can be considered a driver under federal law, opening the door to autonomous vehicles that do not need qualified drivers in them to operate.