Auto industry calls on government to accelerate self-driving revolution by backing Automated Vehicles bill

UK automotive sector leaders have called on MPs to urgently back legislation that they claim could unlock the economic and societal benefits of driverless vehicles.

The UK's first driverless bus, parked outside the QEII conference centre during SMMT Connected
The UK's first driverless bus, parked outside the QEII conference centre during SMMT Connected - The Engineer

Announced by the government in November 2023, the Automated Vehicles bill aims to provide a clear legal framework for the safe operation of automated vehicles on roads and other public places in the UK. The bill has already cleared a number of obstacles and is thought to be close to being enacted. However, there are growing fears that its passage could be derailed by a general election.

Talking at SMMT Connected 2024, a major event exploring the future of personal mobility and mass transport organised by automotive trade association the SMMT, the body’s CEO Mike Hawes said that widespread deployment of self-driving vehicles could save 3,200 lives, prevent 53,000 serious accidents and deliver an economic boost of £38bn by 2040.  

With much of the technology now mature, and many UK companies already heavily involved in a number of more advanced export markets, Hawes argued that legislation is vital to accelerate the UK market and warned that a failure to rubber-stamp the bill could set the UK back by years.

“The prize on offer is significant”, he said. “Even with the current timetable, we're unlikely to see self- driving vehicles on our roads before 2026. But if the bill is delayed, that's a delay the UK can ill afford, so we must not squander our advantages.”

Echoing Hawes’ call to action, Prof David Keene, chief executive of tier one automotive supplier and autonomous vehicle developer Aurrigo said: “Legislation is key. We can do as much as we can in terms of vehicle development, software development and systems development. But at the end of the day, you need a framework. Currently, we don't have a policy and we're really close to getting one. I think that cross party approval and consensus is the really important thing about getting that over the line.”

Brynn Balcombe, Autonomy Systems & Regulation expert at autonomous vehicle software company Oxa (formerly Oxbotica) added that whilst agreement is clearly desirable to in terms of developing the UK market, it’s not impacting the pace of innovation at UK firms active in other international markets such as the EU, which implemented regulations for automated driving solutions back in 2022. 

“We've done testing over in Germany, and we've been out to the US, where we had our first commercial deployment earlier this earlier this month, so it's not slowing down the pace of our UK company's development because we are able to export our technologies.”

The bill is also expected to play a key role in all important efforts to shore up consumer confidence in driverless technologies.

 “It is understandable….given there are no self-driving vehicles currently on UK roads, that people will be anxious,” said Hawes.  “That's why our industry must work with government to dispel any myths, and make sure that the benefits of this technology are communicated.”

Whilst there have already been lots of trials that have helped shift public perception (indeed a recent SMMT commissioned YouGov survey suggests that nearly a third of all adults (29 per cent) would use an automated passenger service today) there is still work to do, and the bill will be critical in this regard.  

“What goes into that bill is really fundamental to our industry,” said Balcombe, “in terms of how we deploy the technology safely, legally, and bring the public with us on that journey.”