With driverless cars yet to roll out into commercial service at scale in the UK, Future of Transport Minister George Freeman aims to speed up the process by opening a new test facility for self-driving vehicles.

The new centre, The Autonomous Village in Millbrook, Bedfordshire – otherwise known as the Millbrook-Culham Test and Evaluation Environment (MCTEE) – features 70km of test tracks, a private mobile network, and a simulator suite.

It not only aims to test autonomous vehicles, onboard sensors, and guidance systems, but also two enablers of the driverless revolution: 5G telecommunications and cybersecurity. It will be part of a network of such facilities across the country, co-ordinated by UK automated vehicle company, Zenzic.

The £7 million centre is backed by UK Research & Investment (UKRI) and is a joint project between Millbrook Proving Ground and the Atomic Energy Authority’s Remote Applications for Challenging Environments (RACE) unit, suggesting that the research will ultimately have commercial applications beyond autonomous vehicles’ deployment on public roads.

Developing cross-sector applications for sensors, control systems, and AI is vital to ensuring the technologies’ commercial success and attracting greater investment.

Whitehall is also backing a new safety assurance system to enable the “mainstream sale and use of automated vehicles”, according to an announcement from the Minister.

The system, CAV PASS, is designed to ensure that vehicles are safe and secure by design in advance of testing, sale, and deployment – echoing similar moves by the government to secure Internet of Things (IoT) products last year.

Speaking at the recent Cenex-Low Carbon Vehicle conference, Freeman said, “Self-driving vehicles can offer significant rewards for the UK’s economy, road safety and accessibility. We are determined to lead in the testing and development of safe autonomous transport.

“This is new terrain, and with our national expertise the UK is well-placed to blaze the trail globally by developing a global benchmark for assuring the safety and security of this exciting technology.”

Joshua Harris, Director of Campaigns for road safety charity Brake, added: “Connected and autonomous vehicles have enormous potential to eliminate driver error and help put an end to the daily tragedy of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

“The technology and its potential is hugely exciting, but it’s critical that these vehicles are robustly tested for safety before allowing them on our roads. We support the leading role being played by UK government on this important agenda for safe mobility and the safety assurance regime will undoubtedly be fundamental to its future success.”

  •  Autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and robotics are among the Eight Great Technologies identified by the government as critical to the UK’s future economic prosperity.

Autonomous vehicles are intended to democratise personal transport, improve road safety, reduce urban car ownership, and integrate on-demand transport and delivery networks with the UK’s ageing cities.

However, public confidence in driverless cars was damaged last year after a spate of accidents involving test cars and commercially available driver assistance systems.