Britain takes another step forward in catching up on driverless cars

After a slow start, Britain is starting to catch up on putting the right measures in place to capture the coming driverless car revolution:

The UK government has announced that driverless cars will be allowed on public roads from January next year.

It also invited cities to compete to host one of three trials of the tech, which would start at the same time.

In addition, ministers ordered a review of the UK’s road regulations to provide appropriate guidelines.

As I’ve said before:

Think just how quickly driverless cars have developed in the last five years alone – and then think how long it takes to get planning permission, let alone build or fit out, a big public transport project. Public transport plans now should already be factoring in the high likelihood of a near future in which cars no longer need humans to drive them.

Some of the benefits like to accrue from this are brilliant – but do not require policy changes. A further improvement in road safety is likely for, as we have seen in other areas where automated machinery replaces humans in repetitive tasks, computers are more reliable, less sleepy and never drunk. Brilliant news for humanity (road deaths killed more people than genocides during the twentieth century after all), a useful saving for the NHS but not something which much knock-on policy impacts.

Other changes are likely to be more troubling. Think what a significant part of the local economy of some ethnic minority communities in some areas is provided by the minicab trade, for example. As mechanisation (driverless cars) drives out low-skilled workers (minicab drivers) there is no guarantee that the economic transition for those most affected will be smooth or quickly. The long-run benefits to us all may be immense, but as previous such mechanisations have shown, the short-run pain for some can be great.

There will also be a one-off regulatory requirement and opportunity as driverless cars start appearing, to set the rules under which they perform and before new entrenched vested interests and the inertia of history makes change hard. For example, from day one the tax treatment of driverless cars could strongly encourage sharing, so that we move away from the situation where one of the most expensive items in many household’s expenditure is also an item left unused for large parts of the day.

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