UK to allow driverless cars on public roads in January


The BBC's Jon Ironmonger finds out how to 'drive' a driverless car

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The UK government has announced that driverless cars will be allowed on public roads from January next year.

It also invited cities to compete to host one of three trials of the tech, which would start at the same time.

In addition, ministers ordered a review of the UK's road regulations to provide appropriate guidelines.

The Department for Transport had originally pledged to let self-driving cars be trialled on public roads by the end of 2013.

Business Secretary Vince Cable revealed the details of the new plan at a research facility belonging to Mira, an automotive engineering firm based in the 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," he said.

UK engineers, including a group at the University of Oxford, have been experimenting with driverless cars. But, concerns about legal and insurance issues have so far restricted the machines to private roads.

Other countries have, however, been swifter to provide access to public routes.

Business Secretary Vince Cable 'felt safe' in driverless car

The US States of California, Nevada and Florida have all approved tests of the vehicles. In California alone, Google's driverless car has done more than 300,000 miles on the open road.

In 2013, Nissan carried out Japan's first public road test of an autonomous vehicle on a highway.

And in Europe, the Swedish city of Gothenburg has given Volvo permission to test 100 driverless cars - although that trial is not scheduled to occur until 2017.

Competition cash

UK cities wanting to host one of the trials have until the start of October to declare their interest.

The tests are then intended to run for between 18 to 36 months.

A £10m fund has been created to cover their costs, with the sum to be divided between the three winners.

Meanwhile, civil servants have been given until the end of this year to publish a review of road regulations.

This will cover the need for self-drive vehicles to comply with safety and traffic laws, and involve changes to the Highway Code, which applies to England, Scotland and Wales.

Two area will be examined by the review: how the rules should apply to vehicles in which the driver can take back control at short notice, and how they should apply to vehicles in which there is no driver.

How do driverless cars work?
Google car computer image Google's self-drive car combines video and sensor data to determine where to steer

The label "driverless vehicle" actually covers a lot of different premises.

Indeed, the cruise control, automatic braking, anti-lane drift and self-parking functions already built into many vehicles offer a certain degree of autonomy.

But the term is generally used to refer to vehicles that take charge of steering, accelerating, indicating and braking during most if not all of a journey between two points, much in the same way aeroplanes can be set to autopilot.

Unlike the skies, however, the roads are much more crowded, and a range of technologies are being developed to tackle the problem.

One of the leading innovations is Lidar (light detection and ranging), a system that measures how lasers bounce off reflective surfaces to capture capture information about millions of small points surrounding the vehicle every second. The technology is already used to create the online maps used by Google and Nokia.

Another complimentary technique is "computer vision" - the use of software to make sense of 360-degree images captured by cameras attached to the vehicle, which can warn of pedestrians, cyclists, roadworks and other objects that might be in the vehicle's path.

Self-drive car Part of the challenge for manufacturers will be how to hide the many sensors involved

Autonomous vehicles can also make use of global-positioning system (GPS) location data from satellites; radar; ultrasonic sensors to detect objects close to the car; and further sensors to accurately measure the vehicle's orientation and the rotation of its wheels, to help it understand its exact location.

The debate now is whether to allow cars, like the prototype unveiled by Google in May, to abandon controls including a steering wheel and pedals and rely on the vehicle's computer.

Or whether, instead, to allow the machine to drive, but insist a passenger be ready to wrest back control at a moment's notice.

International rivals

In May, Google unveiled plans to manufacture 100 self-driving vehicles.

The search-giant exhibited a prototype which has no steering wheel or pedals - just a stop-go button.

Google has also put its autonomous driving technology in cars built by other companies, including Toyota, Audi and Lexus.

Other major manufacturers, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and General Motors, are developing their own models.

Most recently, the Chinese search engine Baidu also declared an interest, saying its research labs were at an "early stage of development" on a driverless car project.

But concerns about the safety of driverless cars have been raised by politicians in the US and elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the FBI warned that driverless cars could be used as lethal weapons, predicting that the vehicles "will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 47.


    'I can't see these systems changing road position to avoid a pothole, or moving slightly just in case a kid steps out into the road.'
    Unless I am mistaken, these cars will have sensors that scan every part of the road all of the time, so they will be able to see the hole or child. I think preventing the cars from running people over would one of the first things they do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    The big question is this...

    When can I get blind drunk, get in my car, tell it to take me home and arrive safely asleep at my door???

    If you can also build in a self cleaning seat for my dribble, you are onto a winner!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    It would be interesting to know how well driverless cars co-exist with regular cars. No doubt, the driverless cars will more or less tailgate each other like 'road-trains' to minimise their road usage and therefore be difficult to safely overtake. These may work in the US where the roads have more lanes and are far more spacious but the UK has narrow roads, roundabouts and space is at a premium.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Just wait until the first person is killed by a driverless car. If somebody steps out in front of such a car, it will happen. The same sort of thing applies to dangerously driven other vehicles.

    Then what??

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Ah well millions of jobs confined to the dustbin in the name of progress, just wonder what all those will do who make a living out of driving. !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I, for one, welcome the idea of being driven to work. It would certainly take the hassle out of the morning commute.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    In 25 years time the very idea of driving your own car will be considered ridiculous. Those who say "yeah but what about when one causes an accident..." humans do that EVERY day. We will look back on all the accidents we have now and be thankful for this kind of technology when it becomes incredibly rare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I look forward to a driverless car careering along the M4 crashing into everthing in sight, no doubt being attracted by the bar code on every single item along it's route as it looks for further instructions!

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Far too many of the experimental cars rely on wi-fi or Mobile data communications. So what happens when your car drives out of range into a black spot? Others rely of sat-nav - same problem occurs no signal - what next?

    Go directly to ditch/crowded pavement, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect £200.

    Big basic problems to overcome ... still!

    But I'd love one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The public should be aware of where this path leads. Hot on the heels of the State granting itself disproportionate powers to routinely spy on us all (DRIP), these cars provide another platform to track us and our activities. It's no coincidence that Google are pushing this hard - they're a marketing company who thrive on exploiting private data for profit. I'd rather retain control of my life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Now I can work from home, my bills are all generated by a computer, my banking is done on the internet, I pay by a card. My food could soon be selected by a computer based on my habits and be delivered by a driverless vehicle.

    My neighbours being typically British keep themselves to themselves (don't speak to us)

    Is there any point in humans any more?

    Even the BBC news TV cameras are robots!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I can hear it now: "Not my fault offisher - the car was driving."

    And in case anyone thinks the technology is so wonderful here's a snatch of crew conversation from those long ago days when one could still bum a ride on the jump seat of a passenger jet: "What's it doing now?" said the captain. "Don't know, I'll reprogramme it" said the first officer.

    Still feeling confident?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    31. Jyra

    I think you'll find that's a regulation not a law of nature and as a result can be changed. If such regulations couldn't be changes we'd all be driving behind a man with a red flag and the maximum speed limit would be 12mph.

    27. kappa_cephei


    ' Mainly because people can run at greater than 25mph.'

    No they can't!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Most people here seem to forget that most modern car engines run only because of computers and electronics controlling it, many have computers looking after abs, some for traction control, handling etc etc
    All these make the cars safer. (Airplanes etc. also have computers for helping to fly, land, engines....) Just because your PC can go wrong...

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Excellent. The main purpose, of course, is to get the car to take you home after visiting the pub (without having to worry about driving). Look forward to this...

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Why do we need driverless cars? the point of a car is to get a human or load from A to B. A driverless car equals no human, and a driverless car with a load equals no human to unload! Surely money invested in this technology could be better used else where. Unless of course anyone over 80 has to buy one, then I am fully on board!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986:
    104. No person shall drive or cause or permit any other person to drive, a motor vehicle on a road if he is in such a position that he cannot have proper control of the vehicle or have a full view of the road and traffic ahead.

    So that will be fun in an accident :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    it should be tested in Herne Bay, if it works the roads would be safer, if it doesn't work the roads would still be safer....

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    A very good idea,,,,,,,,,,,,,until something goes wrong.

    Then who do the whiplash, claim culture brigade sue?

    The chip manufacturer?

    The owner?

    The government?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @18 Susan Denim

    The car will probably be guided by crap computer code written by an average programmer using flawed application design specs. Look at how many bugs there are in the latest incarnations of windows and android. And no doubt the government will want all cars connected to the internet of things ... hackers are probably planning as we speak


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