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Self-driving cars put safety first

Self-driving car (Stu Gray / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

The future is closer than you think. Self-driving cars may sound like science fiction, but they are quickly becoming a reality. In two cities in the US, you can use an app on your phone to order a driverless taxi to pick you up.

As with any revolutionary new technology, it is entirely natural to have questions. Will autonomous vehicles drive safely? What are the rules? Who is accountable if something goes wrong?

The Automated Vehicles Bill – being debated today in the House of Commons – answers these questions. It will also secure our share of an industry that has been predicted to create 38,000 jobs and be worth £42bn to our economy.

This new law will ensure the UK is at the forefront of the next transport revolution.  

Imagine catching up on television or emails during your morning commute. Or being able to send your car to pick up a friend.  Imagine the freedom for people with sight loss, or the elderly and frail, being able to drive without relying on others.

Self-driving vehicles will make transport more convenient and more accessible for millions of people in our cities, towns and rural communities.  

But before you ask (as some already have): driving yourself will still be an option.  

I understand people will have concerns, primarily about safety. Will the self-driving cars see cyclists and pedestrians? Well, we have put improving safety at the very heart of this legislation: making sure that it makes driving safer, and reduces accidents.

The legislation will require that self-driving cars must drive more safely than the average human driver. They must meet rigorous technical standards. They must have a company that is responsible for when the vehicle drives itself. That’s exactly what today’s Bill provides for, and it’s what the Transport Secretary and I discussed with road safety organisations when we met them last week.

Before I got into a self-driving car, I confess I was a bit worried – even though the car, like all operating in the UK today, had a safety driver ready to take over. However, as I rode round busy North London streets in a self-driving car from the British company Wayve, I was instantly reassured: it was clearly very safe. A car double-parked in front of us, and my car automatically slowed down, checked it was safe to overtake on the other side of the road, and then did so smoothly and carefully.

Self-driving cars bring the possibility of reducing accidents, increasing safety and saving lives. I saw this first-hand. 88 per cent of road collisions involve human error as a contributory factor. But self-driving cars do not drink and drive. They don't get tired. They are immune from road rage. They follow the rules, and don’t get distracted. Put simply, they eliminate human error. Regulated right, self-driving cars can make roads safe. In the US, the Waymo self-driving taxis have driven around 5 million miles, and early evidence suggests they reduce collisions by over 80 per cent.

As the technology develops, the UK can be ahead of the game, and in many ways we are. The UK is already the world’s third biggest tech economy, and we now have multiple companies using artificial intelligence to develop self-driving vehicles. We’re building on a proven track record of bringing autonomous transport to Britain safely, with London’s DLR operating driverless trains since it opened in 1987.

Last month, Oxa, a UK company, announced they will be testing self-driving shuttle buses in the US, with tests in Oxford to follow. We need to provide the best possible environment for these innovators to grow, in turn supporting our plan to boost the economy. That’s why I’m confident this Bill will provide the clarity and certainty for investors to choose Britain as the home of the self-driving vehicle industry.

History tells us that anxiety precedes most technological advances. We saw it with electricity, the railways and even the first motorcar, which drew scepticism and the red flag man before it became a force for connection, travel and freedom.

The possibilities of a self-driving future – for safety, for jobs, for connection – are enormous. We’re at the very beginning of this journey, but we are making sure that self-driving cars put safety first.

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