The race for global leadership in self-driving is well underway, but there are worrying signs that the UK’s recent achievements are going unrecognised.
Last week, a senior voice on US autonomous vehicle (AV) policy, Bob Latta – the Republican leader of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee – wrote an opinion piece for The Hill, including the line: “Unfortunately, the lack of a federal AV framework threatens U.S. leadership on this issue and empowers countries like China, Japan and Germany to take the lead.”
So, for this big hitter at least, the UK apparently doesn’t spring to mind when it comes to self-driving.
Latta continued: “If Congress fails to act, other countries will step in and dictate the future of AV technology. We cannot allow this to happen. For the United States to be the driver of cutting-edge technology, we need a framework that allows the industry to innovate while ensuring high safety standards. To maintain our leadership in the world, Congress must avoid shortsightedness, look over the horizon and pass the Self Drive Act.”
There are certainly parallels with the debate on this side of the pond. In May, the government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) announced a new £40m funding competition to kick-start commercial self-driving services in the UK.
The launch press release contained this eye-catching line: “The first vehicles to be listed as self-driving in the UK – vehicles approved under the Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) Regulation – could be available for people to purchase, lease or rent later this year.”
Not everyone agrees with the approach or the timetable, so the government has a tricky balancing act to perform.
Back in 2018, then Business and Energy Secretary, Greg Clark, commented: “Low carbon and self-driving vehicles are the future and they are going to drive forward a global revolution in mobility. This revolution has the potential to be worth £52bn to our economy by 2035, and the opportunity to be at the forefront of this change is one we cannot afford to miss.”
At the time, we were fifth in KPMG’s Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI), judged against four pillars – policy and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance.
By 2019, we had slipped to seventh, behind The Netherlands, Singapore, Norway, the US, Sweden and Finland, just ahead of Germany in eighth.
By 2020, we were down to 9th in the KPMG ranking, having been overtaken by South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, with Germany slipping to 14th.
Germany have upped their game since, with 13,000km of motorway approved for conditionally automated driving and Mercedes-Benz announcing that it will accept legal responsibility for accidents caused by its Drive Pilot system.
Let’s remind ourselves of the three countries namechecked by Bob Latta: China, Japan and Germany. According to the latest KPMG ranking those three placed 20th, 11th and 14th respectively.
The self-driving industry is evolving at lightning-fast speed and the UK is still very much in the vanguard.
Just last month, Oxbotica ran the first zero-occupancy, fully self-driving, electric vehicle on publicly accessible roads anywhere in Europe.
Lord Grimstone, Minister of State for Investment, said: “This exciting development will further strengthen the UK’s reputation as a leading destination to develop and deploy self-driving vehicles, as well as helping grow a sector that will support highly-skilled jobs across the country.”
Then there’s Project Encode, which recently demonstrated transfer of control across three states – manual driving, autonomous driving and teleoperation – in live vehicle tests in Oxford and London.
And CAVForth, with its landmark two-week trial of a Level 4 automated bus in Scotland. The list goes on.
However, if Bob Latta’s comment is anything to go by, we clearly need to do more to highlight these successes on the international stage.