Driverless vehicles: the uses and benefits

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Explains how driverless technology could improve cars, buses, rail and commercial vehicles and the work being done to trial driverless cars.

Good morning everyone.

It’s a real pleasure to join you today (22 October 2014) at Thatcham.

My thanks to David and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety for inviting me and for all the great work they do.

I’d also like to thank Peter Shaw and his team here for such a warm welcome, and for showing me the first rate facilities you have here.

We are here to discuss something that has the potential to revolutionise transport – and particularly road transport – in our modern world.

It’s a revolution that for many feels a bit sci-fi.

So it’s been fascinating to discover today that the technology is not wholly new.

In fact, it’s mostly an adaptation of familiar systems drivers use every day.

Like anti-lock braking, adaptive cruise control, automated parking and lane warning.

Less a revolution, and more of an evolution.

Today’s vehicles are so technically advanced that there is the real prospect that driverless cars could be on our roads in a relatively short amount of time.

But what makes this so intriguing isn’t just the technical challenge.

It’s the cultural challenge.

The idea of tech-enabled driving feels a bit weird.

We are all so used to being masters –or mistresses –of the road. Invincible. Always right.

Even though it’s our shortcomings that lead to most accidents.

Getting people to embrace and trust something that at first may feel alien.

But if and when it is adopted, this evolution has the power to profoundly change our lives.

Not just making driving safer and easier.

But reducing congestion.

Making people more productive.

And therefore helping boost our economy too.

So for me, driverless vehicles aren’t just a challenge for engineers.

They’re also a challenge for us politicians.

A challenge for us all to solve.

And that’s something I find very exciting indeed.

And as a transport minister, I can certainly see the technological benefits for other travel modes.

Better capacity optimisation and improved safety are key in other areas too – like railways.

The rail industry has already made great leaps providing more capacity through its ‘digital railway’ programme by making better use of existing trains and infrastructure.

This initiative draws from experience in aviation where digital air traffic management has delivered big increases in capacity without building more runways.

Train signalling is the single biggest constraint on rail network capacity.

It controls train movements, but only allows one train to be on any one section of track at a given point in time.

This means there’s lots of space between each train.

By applying digital technologies to railways it is possible to allow trains to run safely closer together and so delivering greater capacity.

And I also see a future where driverless buses provide better and more frequent services.

A major component of rural transport is the cost of the driver - and so a truly driverless bus could transform rural public transport in the future.

I understand that one of the country’s major bus companies is already interested in driverless buses.

Once we have resolved any regulatory issues that the department’s current review might highlight, this could be just the initiative to get the first driverless bus on the road.

But it’s driverless cars and commercial vehicles where the biggest gains will be delivered.

Driverless – or even highly automated – cars and vans can deliver improved safety; improved emissions, reduced noise; optimal usage of road capacity and better use of the scarcest commodities of all these days.

Time – and attention.

Driver/human error is reported to account for over 90% of traffic incidents, and so it is clear that driverless cars will make a huge difference.

Using the technology to manage traffic flows on trunk roads will smooth traffic flows and reduce the stop/start of congestion, which will, in turn, reduce emissions and improve fuel consumption.

Building new roads to cope with increased capacity is very expensive and is slow to deliver, but this technology can deliver a solution.

And there are great– social – benefits.

The advantages of driver –assisting technology for disabled people or those with poor eyesight are clear.

I saw a Google video showing a man who was reported to have lost 95% of his vision driving a Google-car.

Let’s just imagine the life changing opportunity then of a driverless car not just for blind and partially sighted people, but for all in our community.

It will be truly transformational.

What about the challenge for time poor mothers with school runs to do?

Driver assisting technology could open up new windows for productivity in jammed days.

I had the opportunity earlier to be driven in some of the demonstration vehicles available today.

They are fantastic.

But I can also understand that some drivers will be – at the very least - unsure of them.

I know that manufacturers will be doing their best to reassure customers and to provide the right type of guidance.

Many manufacturers such as BMW, Audi, Nissan, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover are looking to develop models with autonomous functions.

Nissan, for example, is currently working with the Oxford Mobile Robitics Group project at Oxford University, which is using a modified Nissan Leaf Electric Vehicle fitted with prototype navigation equipment, and are hoping to develop a low cost autonomous navigation system for fitment into next generation vehicles.

But what can government do?

We have a number of plans.

We have set up a trial programme with our colleagues from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that will demonstrate these driverless vehicles in towns and cities.

In July a £10 million fund was launched for collaborative research and development projects to look at how driverless cars can be integrated into everyday life in the UK.

This competition is being managed and run by Innovate-UK and has the potential to support up to 3 projects starting on 1 January 2015.

The projects are to be industry led, with a local authority partner, and feature driverless-type capability in an urban environment.

They will last between 18 and 36 months - and we hope to announce the competition winners next month.

I hope the trials in our cities and towns will put us at the forefront of this transformational technology and open up new opportunities for our economy.

Separately, the Department for Transport is leading a review of the relevant regulation and legislation to ensure there is a clear and appropriate regime for the testing of driverless cars in the UK, whilst also ensuring public safety.

The review will establish what issues must be addressed to enable the testing of such technology on UK roads whilst maintaining existing high levels of road user safety.

It will cover where there is an individual in the vehicle who is qualified and capable of taking control of the car. I must add that this individual will be sitting in the conventional driving position.

The review will also look further ahead to the implications of potential use of fully autonomous vehicles.

The Department for Transport published the terms of reference and a discussion document seeking views on the 4 August 2014. The closing date for which was 19 September. The department is currently reviewing the responses received and will publish its report by the end of 2014.

We are also looking at ‘platooning’ of heavy goods vehicles on the trunk road network. I am sure you will know that platooning is the electronic coupling of vehicles to run in close formation. By allowing vehicles to run closer together, the government recognises the potential fuel and carbon savings, reduced congestion by creating more efficient use of the network, and reduced road casualties by eliminating driver error from accidents.

The department has recently concluded a feasibility study of platooning on the UK trunk road network using vehicles with partial automation, but with a driver in each vehicle. I recently approved the next phase of research and know that work will be getting underway in 2015.

So 2015 could be the year of the driverless or highly automated car and truck in the UK.

I have spoken about the technology and the opportunity and benefits for the UK, but the trials will also provide a great learning opportunity.

Driverless technology is the future. We can’t avoid it and I don’t want us to: I want the UK to learn as much as we can and as quickly as we can. And that includes understanding how these vehicles interact with society and other road users.

I can announce today that I have asked my officials to implement alongside the trials, a study of driver and road user behaviour. I do believe this is important as a means to reassure the public that we are careful of the risk, but also recognising the need for progress.

I wanted also to mention, and you won’t be surprised to hear, that the UK is very good at road safety. We have one of the best records and the figures for 2013 released a few weeks ago showed again the lowest levels of fatal road casualties (1713) since records began in 1926.

I want the introduction of these new technologies to continue our record breaking achievement for the decades to come, and I am sure you all share that ambition.

Today has been absolutely fascinating.

And I thank everyone who has helped stage such a successful event.

It has certainly given me a huge amount to think about – and I’ll be sharing what I’ve learnt with my ministerial colleagues.

As I said at the start, this is a challenge for all of us.

But it’s also a challenge that everyone will benefit from.

So I look forward to working with you in the future, to turn this developing technology into real change on our transport network.

Thank you.