Trudy Harrison: Why we aim to keep the UK a world leader in the self-driving vehicle revolution

28 Mar

Trudy Harrison is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport and Member of Parliament for Copeland. 

Automated mobility, or self-driving vehicles, is the most exciting innovation for transport in decades, and Britain is leading the way. This technology could level-up every corner of the UK, improve the country’s productivity, reduce isolation and emissions, improve road safety, and bolster opportunities everywhere.

That is why the Government has jointly invested with industry over £440 million to make this country one of the best and most open places in the world to test self-driving mobility.

The funding has supported over 90 projects involving more than 200 organisations across the country. The result is a rapidly growing connected and automated mobility industry. By 2035, the Connected Places Catapult forecast 40 per cent of new UK cars sold could come with a form of self-driving technology generating a sector worth £42 billion, creating up to 38,000 new skilled jobs, and supporting our economy and the wider nation as we build back better following the Covid-19 pandemic.

This technology has the potential to be safer. Human error is a contributory factor in 88 per cent of road collisions and since road collisions are the leading cause of death among those aged 15-29, thousands of lives could be saved by this revolutionary transport innovation.

Self-driving mobility has immense potential to better connect rural communities, reduce isolation, help deliver essential goods and give people better access to education, apprenticeships, and vital services like health care.

It is important we look at the human element of self-driving mobility and the benefits they will bring to society. For example, an older person with deteriorating eyesight who can no longer drive, but who could stay connected to their family and community with the support of a new self-driving bus service. Or someone commuting home following a stressful day at work, who could rely on the new self-driving technology in their car to allow them to catch up on that marketing report they didn’t quite get to, whilst the car drives safely through congestion.

These are just some of the examples of the potential power of self-driving vehicles in transforming and changing lives for the better, and it is why it is crucial we unlock this technology for people across the UK.

In addition to investment, the implementation of a flexible legislative framework is key to encourage rather than stifle innovation and ensure self-driving vehicles can fulfil their true potential. The Law Commissions’ report is a significant step towards a robust, best-in-class regulatory framework.

The Government welcomes the findings of the Law Commissions’ report and is therefore committed to introduce primary legislation on self-driving vehicles as soon as parliamentary time allows. The UK’s regulatory framework for self-driving mobility must remain gold standard as technology develops, unlocking routes to market both at home and abroad.

In the meantime, we must focus on public acceptability and consumer education to ensure self-driving vehicles can be deployed safely and sustainably across the country, and embraced by the people who stand to benefit the most.

Public acceptability of this new and emerging technology remains a key challenge to its success. We will continue to work with the industry to ensure we have an effective regulatory framework, but this is only part of the puzzle. It is why my department worked with BritainThinks last year to conduct the Future of Transport: Deliberative Research, which sought to understand the publics’ evolving attitudes to self-driving vehicles.

Typically, people do not make active, conscious transport decisions but rather default to known options based on habit, convenience, comfort and cost.

However, there are also emotional associations that can impact the public’s willingness to use of self-driving vehicles, and it is our job to address these. One of those key concerns relates to the safety of self-driving vehicles, which is consistently reported as one of the barriers to uptake.

Our findings revealed that some of the key drivers to improving perceptions of safety were increasing exposure and normalisation of self-driving vehicles. That is why my department will be delivering a series of deliberative research events and roadshows across the country to increase exposure and grow our understanding of what the public want from this emerging technology.

Technology for technology’s sake is meaningless without bringing transport users with you, and there must be a greater effort in ensuring the public are part of how we shape on safe use and interaction with self-driving vehicles.

I was pleased to speak at the fifth meeting of the APPG for Connected and Automated Mobility alongside the Law Commission of England and Wales last week to discuss the outcomes of the report and its implications for the future of automated mobility. Supported by insurer AXA UK and law firm Burges Salmon, the meeting brought over 70 industry and parliamentary representatives together to discuss the opportunities and challenges currently facing automated mobility.

I was delighted to see the industry’s commitment to engage with Government to support the development of a comprehensive regulatory framework.

Self-driving vehicle technology has a real potential to help deliver a better Britain, and with a robust regulatory framework and public acceptability, the prize is significant – boosting Britain as a science superpower, supporting our ambitions to reach Net Zero, and levelling-up opportunities for communities across the country.