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Autonomous vehicles - is the UK at risk of losing its edge?


It was not so long ago that the UK Government was declaring that “We are leading the world in preparing for autonomous vehicles”, but does that declaration still hold up to scrutiny?

Those were the words of the Conservative Party Manifesto back in June 2017, but fast forward four years and while Government maintains it is still committed to realising the benefits of autonomous vehicle technology in the UK, progress seems to be slowing. There is less talk of the UK “leading the world” and more talk about how we catch up to other world leaders in connected and automated mobility (CAM) technology.

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recently closed a call for evidence seeking evidence to inform strategic policy on CAM in the UK. While the stated aims of this call for evidence included identifying areas of expected UK competitive advantage in the supply chain, understanding how CAM can help future proof the UK’s existing mobility industries and how CAM technologies can support economic growth, the questions in the call for evidence all seemed to boil down to one topic - ‘why has progress slowed and what do we do to stay in the game?’

The foreword to the BEIS call for evidence highlighted that the UK is currently ranked second in the G7 for self-driving vehicle readiness, given particularly its lead on policy, legislation and cyber security.  And it’s true that the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 was progressive in setting the groundwork for the introduction of CAM technology, but what has been happening lately to maintain the UK’s top spot and what are the barriers to future progress? 

There are many ongoing trials of CAM technology in the UK, but its current uses and deployment are limited. The UK’s infrastructure, particularly around towns and cities, was developed for the horse and cart, not the autonomous vehicle. Countries like China, who are able to develop their infrastructure to support the development of CAM, are arguably in a much better position than the UK, who have limited locations where CAM technology can be deployed until funding is available to update UK infrastructure – a process which will inevitably take a considerable amount of time.

Even areas in which there are progress come with large caveats. The Department for Transport recently announced that automated lane-keeping systems (ALKS) would be the first type of ‘hands-free’ driving to the legalised in the UK. This technology controls the position and speed of a car in a single lane. Leaving aside the fact that the industry disagrees that this type of technology is indeed ‘automated’ at all but is in fact ‘assisted’, there are significant limits to its use. ALKS cannot be utilised when travelling at speeds over 37mph. Being unable to engage this technology at the speeds typically seen on UK motorways means that it is not as helpful as it could be. Why then would UK manufacturers invest further in its deployment when they could concentrate on developing these technologies in jurisdictions where the infrastructure supports its use at greater speeds, or indeed wait until the UK is in a position to support its use on most major motorways for ordinary driving conditions?  

As well as restrictions on CAM development caused by the aged infrastructure of UK roads, there is a skills gap in the UK related to the repair of autonomous vehicles. Consumers need to be comfortable that they can get their vehicles quickly and affordably repaired before investing in new technology. 

The issue of data sharing between manufacturers and insurers remains a sore point across the industry. This current regulatory gap needs to be urgently addressed and is vital to ensure that sufficient information is available so that all affected parties concerned with any accidents involving CAM vehicles are able to establish fault quickly. 

Where we find ourselves ultimately is that the UK started strong on its road to rolling out CAM technology, but now the momentum has petered out somewhat. Inevitable gaps and issues have arisen and they have lingered for some time unresolved. In order for the UK to keep its edge these gaps needs to be closed and investment needs to be made into the UK’s infrastructure and skills gap, together with the provision of more clarity from the Government on how CAM will be enabled over the coming years.

The question now becomes: will the UK maintain its high ranking in the G7 for self-driving readiness, or has it peaked too soon?

For more information, contact Natalie Larnder

Natalie Larnder

Natalie Larnder
Head of Market Affairs


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