E-scooters at a crossroads
E-scooters at a crossroads

Driverless but not rudderless? The self-driving Department for Transport

Words by:
February 19, 2019

Chris Grayling is having a rough old time of it. He has listed from bad headlines to calls for his resignation over the fluffed Brexit ferry contract, faced ire over pricier rail tickets that annually signal the end of the Christmas holidays, and had his past dragged up over the collapse of his flagship probation reforms made as Justice Secretary. And it doesn’t seem it will get any less difficult in the short or longer term. DfT is scrambling to modernise the entire transport infrastructure – in physical, political and regulatory terms – for the 21st century. This is not the easiest of challenges anyway but must be particularly irksome for a distracted department led by an embattled Secretary of State.

Perhaps a symptom of DfT’s eagerness to address questions about the future of transportation in the UK is the flurry of recent consultations from the Department. Four separate consultations have been issued over the past three weeks, with one in particular causing a particular stir: a proposed update to the DfT’s code of practice on autonomous vehicles that could see advanced tests on public roads far sooner than expected. The changes set out more clearly the mechanism by which autonomous vehicles can be trialled, strengthening the legal requirements for testing, in theory making it easier for companies to bring their prototypes to test and consequently to market.

In an area where there’s been so much chatter but little tangible progress since 2015, the government is looking to ensure the UK is the chief innovator in trials of self-driving cars. If successful it would move the UK closer to its ambition of having self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2021, as well as send a clear message the UK was a world leader for autonomous vehicle testing.

However, this hasn’t exactly been welcomed far and wide by stakeholders. Where usually industry calls for government to keep up and to stimulate investment in innovation, this consultation has largely been met with a cry of “too much, too soon”. Industry experts have pointed out that the technology is far from ready, and the RAC has been clear that road users remain overwhelmingly uncomfortable about the prospect of interacting with driverless cars. Not least, the death of a pedestrian in Arizona during a road test in March 2018, as well as two fatalities during closed tests by Tesla, has delayed progress while serious questions, both technological and legal, are asked. More dangerous, more congested roads, on account of the need for ultra-cautious driving, is the prevailing prediction from observers should the government stay in the fast lane through this consultation. Christian Wolmar, the one-time Labour Parliamentary candidate who frequently commentates on transport issues, accused the government of “rushing forward with this technology long before it is ready”. While the SMMT has previously been positive about the impact of driverless cars, claiming they could provide “huge social, industrial and economic benefits to the UK”, it is telling it has not responded directly to this change. This can’t be the response the DfT was hoping for.

Nevertheless, the accelerated ambition from government could be seen as a grand signal to the UK and global business that Britain is the place to be for R&D and trialling. Certainly, the consultation launch was framed within the context of meeting the Industrial Strategy’s Future Mobility Grand Challenge and Ministers’ eagerness to position the UK as a world-leader in the sector. This could well be a boon to innovators in the industry, providing at the very least a pathway to making this technology a reality. In some respects, even by setting a target it cannot meet, the government has stolen a march in embracing a technology many see as crucial to the future of mobility.

The DfT may be under pressure in numerous policy areas, and as with many government departments, may be operating with a distracted upper management. But in attempting to take a lead on autonomous vehicles it has opened the door for business to contribute to creating the transport network of the future. If it is indicative of a general willingness by the Department to embrace new technologies more broadly, the next few years could be an exciting and fruitful time for business.

The episode also provides a lesson in gesture politics. The muted response from the automotive sector to government’s trumpet call for rapid change shows Ministers that without the substance to bring industry and the public with them, there’s not always a need for speed.

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