James May explored self-driving as guest editor of the Today programme

Self-driving features in two flagship BBC programmes – Today and The Royal Institution Christmas Lecture

Share this article

Great media coverage: The BBC has a very self-driving Christmas 2023

Throughout the five-year history of Cars of the Future, our Hyperbolic Headlines strand has highlighted the most egregious examples of negative self-driving media coverage.

Sometimes it is so biased or plain misinformed as to be quite amusing, but actually it is deadly serious, hugely damaging to consumer confidence.

Hats off, then, to the BBC for delivering not only some of the best consumer reporting we’ve seen to date, but also putting self-driving front and centre of its Christmas programming.

Christmas Lecture on self-driving

For starters, we highly recommend the 2023 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (here on Youtube if you’re outside the UK). Primarily aimed at 11-17 year olds, they are typically enjoyed by families [ok, I was forced to watch them by my dad and now happily do the same to my children!]. 

First televised on the BBC in 1936, the Christmas Lectures were conceived by Michael Faraday as an exciting new way of presenting science to young people. They have been held almost every year since 1825.

Professor Mike Wooldridge (Credit: Royal Institution)
Professor Mike Wooldridge (Credit: Royal Institution)

This year, Mike Wooldridge, Professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of Oxford, explored “The dream of driverless cars” with help from our very own Industry Legend, Professor Paul Newman CBE, of Oxa.

This included analysing a real-life incident which occurred while Mike was travelling in Oxa’s test car in Oxford (with a safety driver). A human-driven car drove way too close to them on a roundabout, but the self-driving vehicle handled it smoothly and safely. Cue huge applause from the live teen audience in the theatre.

In any other month we’d have dedicated an entire article to this great show, but the Beeb had another treat in store.

Today on self-driving

On the days in between Christmas and New Year, James May (yes, he of The Grand Tour and formerly Top Gear) assumed guest editorship of the flagship Today news and current affairs programme.

This prestigious role has been filled in the past by Prince Harry, Greta Thunberg, Benjamin Zephaniah, Melinda Gates, Jarvis Cocker, Lewis Hamilton and Professor Stephen Hawking.

One of the three main subjects May chose to investigate, along with tea and hobbies (a man after our own heart), was self-driving. You can catch the highlights from 9.10 to 28.35 in this edit for BBC Sounds.

James May explored self-driving as guest editor of the Today programme
James May explored self-driving as guest editor of the Today programme

Questioning at the outset whether Level 5 self-driving was even possible, he began his research by trying out the Ford BlueCruise hands-free system, which is, as we know, is NOT self-driving.

He then spoke to Dame Wendy Hall, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, who has serious concerns about a “hybrid future” of mixed self-driving and human traffic. So far, May’s scepticism was only being reinforced. Then, as with the Christmas Lecture, Paul Newman came in to bat for self-driving.

He took May for a ride in an Oxa Ford Mondeo test car (with a safety driver) through an industrial estate on the outskirts of Oxford. “So, there we had a speedhump with a pedestrian crossing on top, and it recognised all of that,” admitted May. “This is annoying. This is slightly demolishing my prejudices. I have to say, I really might have to rewrite them a little bit.”

Newman softened the blow, saying: “You’re not wrong in the sense that it’s not immediate, but it’s hard to believe this technology isn’t going to arrive, and it’s hard to believe it isn’t going to be valuable and produce more choices.”

There followed a long interview with Transport Secretary Mark Harper, who explained: “Legislation is going through Parliament at the moment, so hopefully we’ll get that through by the end of 2024. Probably as early as 2026, people will start seeing some elements of these cars that have full self-driving capabilities being rolled-out.

“I’ve seen the technology being used in California, without a safety driver, so it exists, it works. What we’re doing is putting in place the proper legislation so that people can have full confidence in the safety.”

Responding to questions from May, “Why are we doing this? Who benefits?”, Harper said: “First of all, it will improve road safety. We already have very good road safety record in Britain, but there are still several thousand people a year killed on our roads – that could be improved.

“Second, it’s a big economic opportunity for Britain to get a big global share of the market. The final thing is there are a lot of people who currently don’t have the opportunity that many of us drivers take for granted. For example, people who have disabilities – this potentially opens up a whole new world of personal freedom.”

The 2026 quote lead to this BBC online news story – Driverless cars could be on some UK roads by the end of 2026, the transport secretary has told the BBC – which made headlines across the network, prompted articles in virtually every national newspaper, and got picked up internationally.

Is this a watershed moment in terms of UK self-driving media coverage? Time will tell, but it is certainly very welcome. Well done Oxa, and well done the BBC. 

Share this article

Author: Neil Kennett

Neil is MD of Featurebank Ltd. He launched Carsofthefuture.co.uk in 2019.