The British government says that it is looking for new ways to support the advanced trials of autonomous vehicles, supported by a regime of rigorous safety tests.

Whitehall plans to strengthen its guidelines on trial safety and transparency, and develop a new process to support advanced vehicle testing, according to an announcement this week.

On 6th February, the government released a statement saying that its “world-leading code of practice for testing automated vehicles will be strengthened further to set even clearer expectations for safe and responsible trials”.

Under the reinforced code, those carrying out trials for automated vehicles will be expected to publish safety information and trial performance reports, and carry out risk assessments beforehand.

Trialling organisations are also expected to inform the relevant authorities, emergency services, and anyone who might be affected by the tests.

Last year, two fatal accidents in the US involving cars under software control damaged consumer confidence in driverless vehicles, according to the American Automobile Association.

The UK’s Code of Practice, published in 2015, makes clear that automated vehicle trials are possible on any UK road, provided they are compliant with UK law – including testing with a remote driver. This week’s update acknowledges the growing desire of the automotive tech industry to conduct more advanced tests.

No further details were released about the proposals, which were described by officials as giving “a major boost” to a sector “open to investment from the world’s brightest transport technology companies”.

However, the news came as concern mounts in the UK and internationally over a possible ‘no deal’ Brexit – uncertainty that is causing a number of transport and technology companies to reassess their plans.

Vauxhall is considering closing one of its factories; Nissan has abandoned plans to make the X-Trail in Sunderland, citing Brexit as a factor; Jaguar LandRover – a leading proponent of connected vehicles and an investor in autonomous systems – paused UK production before Christmas and is laying off staff worldwide; Bentley has warned about Brexit’s negative impact on investment; and Toyota, Ford, and BMW – three of the world’s top 10 carmakers, and major players in autonomous and connected vehicle technology – have issued warnings on Brexit, which suggest production may be halted or shifted out of the UK.

Meanwhile Bosch, the world’s largest auto-parts maker and one of the leading developers of autonomous systems, including sensors for driverless vehicles, is stockpiling supplies in the UK.

Outside of the automotive sector, electronics companies Sony and Panasonic are shifting operations out of the UK to mainland Europe, and engineering and aerospace giants Airbus and Rolls Royce are stockpiling parts, with the latter shifting production to Germany from its global base in Derby. Even BT is moving some work to Europe.

At present, the UK market for connected and automated vehicles is forecast to be worth £52 billion by 2035, according to the government, which claims it is on track to meet its Industrial Strategy commitment to have fully self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2021.

Yet none of these aspirations appear to factor in the damage being done to the automotive, technology, and electronics sectors by Brexit uncertainty.

Future of Mobility Minister, Jesse Norman, said, “Thanks to the UK’s world-class research base, this country is in the vanguard of the development of new transport technologies, including automation.

“The government is supporting the safe, transparent trialling of this pioneering technology, which could transform the way we travel.”

Automotive Minister, Richard Harrington, added, “The UK has a rich heritage in automotive development and manufacturing, with automated and electric vehicles set to transform the way we all live our lives.

“We want to ensure through the Industrial Strategy Future of Mobility Grand Challenge that we build on this success and strength to ensure we are home to development and manufacture of the next generation of vehicles.”

  • In September 2018, KPMG International ranked the Netherlands as the country most ready to support driverless cars, followed by Singapore and the United States. The UK ranked tenth, and China 16th.