Driverless cars to run on UK streets by 2026

26th Mar 2024

After the British government stated that autonomous vehicle technology will be ready in less than two years, transport expert John Challen assesses how this development will impact the average road user.

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There must be something about the need to push the envelope with cars. Go back to the 1950s and 1960s, and there were myriad predictions about flying cars, with futuristic sci-fi films featuring them cruising around the sky like mini aeroplanes. We are not quite at that stage, although it remains a form of travel still in development, certainly in the US as featured at last year’s Detroit Auto Show.


Fast forward a few decades and, after the turn of the century, there was an increased amount of noise around driverless cars. The industry grew, publications started up and billions of pounds, dollars and euros were thrown at a form of transport that relied on technology to be in charge and transport people and goods to their desired destinations.


Progress has stalled somewhat for several reasons, be it cost, legislation or technology, but there was a boost at the end of 2023, when Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper, announced that, in 2026, the wait would be over.


Harper revealed that driverless cars could be seen on some UK roads when, he said, owners of such cars would be able to travel in vehicles being driven by themselves.


“[Autonomous vehicles have] a huge number of potential uses, the obvious one is 88% or so of road traffic collisions we see today are caused by driver error of some description,” stated Harper at the time. “There is a real potential for this sort of technology to actually improve safety on the roads, not just for drivers, not just for passengers, but for other vulnerable road users - pedestrians, cyclists - to really improve road safety, which is a real win for everybody."


However, the ‘real potential’ in that statement is doing a lot of heavy lifting. The reality is that the technology isn’t ready and that fully autonomous vehicles - which is what Harper describes - are unlikely anytime soon.


While there are cars currently available that will steer, moderate speed and warn of dangers independently of any driver input, that’s a long way from handing over complete control to the machine. That’s not to mention the ongoing legal debate over who is to blame when there is an incident or accident: the vehicle manufacturer, the components’ supplier, or someone/something else.


In the ideal world, the technology onboard driverless cars would mean fewer accidents, a greater level of safety on the road network and more confidence in vulnerable road users. ‘Drivers’ of these autonomous vehicles would ‘see’ potential incidents before they even got close to being a problem and roads would, in theory, be quieter.


Yet, as several high-profile cases in the US (such as Teslas when the ‘autopilot’ system has failed) have highlighted, there is some way to go yet.


There is also a mindset shift required. We are already experiencing the biggest movement in the automotive sector for years with the transition to electric vehicles. To then ask road users, drivers and passengers to accept vehicles that drive by themselves is possibly too much, too soon.


Main image: Concept of self-driving vehicle; credit: Shutterstock

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