UK Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, said in a recent radio interview that driverless cars could be on some UK roads by the end of 2026.
Following the November announcement of the new Automated Vehicles (AV) Bill, in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Harper said: “Probably by as early as 2026 people will start seeing some elements of these cars that have full self-driving capabilities being rolled out.”
Although the first thing that may come to mind at the thought of driverless cars being on the road is the potential risk, the narrative around driverless vehicles is that they could, in fact, improve safety on the roads. This is because they remove the possibility of driver error which Mr Harper says is currently responsible for 88 per cent of road traffic collisions.
Automated Vehicles Bill
The Automated Vehicles Bill, announced in November 2023 as part of the King’s speech, will provide the legal frameworks for self-driving vehicles in the UK, and has “safety at its core.”
The government says that before self-driving vehicles (AVs) are allowed on UK roads, they will, for example, have to meet or exceed the rigorous new safety requirements set out in the law that the bill will eventually become.
Why Self-Driving Vehicles?
In addition to potentially bringing a significant reduction in the number of driver-error road collisions, the UK government says that the many advantages that AVs could bring include:
– The technology will also help make travel more convenient and accessible, improving the lives of millions of people who can’t drive.
– Better connecting rural communities, improving access to essential services, and reducing isolation.
– Making last-mile delivery and long-haul freight services more efficient, reducing congestion, and providing on-demand transport services.
– Boosting the economy by creating up to 38,000 jobs.
Other advantages to UK businesses of allowing the (regulated) use of AVs on UK roads in the near future include:
– Lower labour costs as driver expenses are eliminated.
– Increased efficiency through allowing continuous operation and optimised routes and delivery times.
– Fuel efficiency through better fuel economy, resulting from optimised driving patterns.
– Providing valuable operational and traffic data for business insights.
– Supply chain optimisation, i.e. timely and predictable deliveries improving logistics.
– Environmental benefits (from electric or hybrid power), thereby reducing emissions.
– Opening up innovative service and delivery models.
– Helping businesses to meet evolving safety and environmental standards.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Early tests of AVs going awry have already highlighted the risks posed by (and associated with) having AVs on normal roads. For example:
– Back in 2018, in Tempe, Arizona (the US), a self-driving Uber vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian. This was one of the first fatal accidents involving a pedestrian and an autonomous vehicle. The incident raised significant questions about the safety of self-driving technology and its ability to handle unpredictable situations.
– Also in 2018, in Chandler, Arizona, a Waymo self-driving minivan was involved in a crash when a human-driven car swerved and collided with it. While the Waymo vehicle was operating in autonomous mode, it was not at fault. This incident, however, underscored the complexities of integrating autonomous vehicles into current traffic systems dominated by human drivers.
– There have been several reported accidents involving Tesla’s Autopilot system, where drivers misused the system or over-relied on its capabilities. These incidents, including fatal crashes, highlighted the challenges in ensuring drivers remain engaged and ready to take control even in semi-autonomous modes.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
The introduction of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) to UK roads as soon as 2026 may seem a little ambitious, yet it highlights the government’s commitment to the idea of being able to create new jobs, help establish the UK as a new technology leader, plus stimulate the growth of a £42 billion industry here.
For UK businesses, provided the AVs are affordable, easy enough to operate and safe enough, AVs promise operational efficiency, cost management benefits and productivity enhancements, particularly in sectors like logistics and transportation, boosting levels of efficiency in supply chain management.
However, embracing this new technology will come with its challenges. Safety concerns (highlighted by incidents involving AVs in recent years) are reminders of the need for stringent safety standards and robust legal frameworks (such as the AV Bill is designed to provide). Also, building public trust in this new technology is likely to be vital so and concerns about safety, privacy, and the broader societal impact (including job displacement) need to be addressed to ensure smooth integration into society.
The prospect of driverless cars on UK roads within two years, therefore, presents a blend of exciting opportunities and formidable challenges for businesses. While the benefits of improved efficiency, cost savings, and environmental impacts are clear, navigating the safety, regulatory, and societal aspects are less clear at the moment. For businesses looking forward, adaptability and readiness to embrace change will be crucial in capitalising on the advantages that AVs bring.