Driverless cars – coming soon to a road near you!

Today is an historic day for motoring in the UK. The government has announced a change in the law to allow companies to start running trials of driverless cars – which means the first computer-controlled vehicles will hit Britain’s highways in January next year.
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£10 million ignition fund

A £10 million fund has been set aside to cover the costs of trials across three UK cities from the start of next year that will run for between 18 and 36 months. Vince Cable PM, Business Secretary, unveiled the scheme: "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."

Impact on insurance

The move could eventually lead to a big change in your insurance premiums. If driverless cars can be shown to be safer, and if they are involved in fewer accidents than conventional vehicles, the cost of insuring them will inevitably fall. This could be one of the main reasons why people get over their reflex mistrust of driverless vehicles and start using them. For more on the potential impact on the insurance industry, read my article Could driverless cars cause a car insurance crash?

Keeping pace?

But is the UK really ‘at the forefront’ of this technology though, or is it just trying to keep pace with other countries, notably the US, home of Google, the main driver behind computerised car? Driverless cars first hit the desert streets of Nevada back in 2011 and a MoneySuperMarket Motoring Blog reported on this new technology in January 2013 when we asked Is Google Self-Drive the future? Since then the US states of California and Florida have followed Nevada’s lead to allow driverless cars to take to the streets – one California-based Google drone has already completed more than 300,000 on the open road. Last year saw Nissan carry out Japan’s first public road test of a computer-controlled car on its highways. As far as European rivals go, Swedish car maker Volvo has been given permission to test drive 1,000 automated vehicles around the streets of Gothenburg from 2017. So while the UK is ahead of most markets, we’re still miles behind the States – 700,000 miles to be precise, that how many miles Google’s fleet of driverless cars have covered in the US - so what took us so long?

Long and winding road?

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of driving in the US, you’ll be well aware that its wide, open roads offer a very different experience to the one presented by the UK’s narrow winding streets – even the open country roads over here aren’t that open. So could the UK’s crowded roads could pose a greater problem for computer-controlled cars than the open roads of the Californian highways, or even the streets of San Francisco? It would seem not. Google insists that ‘streetscape’ technology – infrastructure feeding out data to cars’ computers – is not necessary as its driverless cars rely instead on highly detailed maps and their own on board sensors. This means there’ll be no need to redesign our towns and cities or even stick sensors on every set of traffic lights.

What will new rules mean for UK motorists?

The change in legislation means the UK’s rules of the road will now fall into line with those of the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic, which was amended in May to allow a car to drive itself so long as the automated system can be overridden or switched off by the driver. This means that only the ‘first generation’ of driverless cars – the ones that still have a fully functioning steering wheel, accelerator and brake – will be allowed on our roads. New legislation will be needed for Google’s next-gen computerised self-driving cars – the ones that do away with all manual controls and take over the driving experience completely…
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