Getting in on the action

Senior reporter

Launching driverless car trials and quantum technology centres won’t make Britain a technology world leader but they’re a step in the right direction

By the end of the decade, Britain should have at least two major towns or cities where driverless cars have become a normal sight on the roads. The technology to enable autonomous vehicles largely exists already but it needs deploying and testing in real cars – and this is where the government is hoping the UK can come in.

One of the less prominent announcements made in this week’s National Infrastructure Plan was the proposal to make the UK a world-leading centre for the development and testing of driverless cars.

This will include a review to make sure Britain has the right laws and regulations to enable automotive firms to do this work, and £10m to turn one town or city into a testing ground. The announcement comes shortly after the news that Milton Keynes is to host a trial of driverless ‘pods’ from 2015.

It’s the latest in a series of moves by the current government to pick up on an emerging technology and attempt to leverage Britain’s strong research base to exploit that technology for economic growth.

Yesterday’s Autumn Statement also included £270m of funding for a network of five centres for research into quantum technology, a way of translating advances in quantum physics into fields such as computing, communications and sensing. A similar step has been taken for the much-heralded material graphene.

And of course the UK now has a network of “Catapult” centres hoping to help take emerging technologies in sectors from high-value manufacturing to satellite applications through the difficult commercialisation development stage.

These investments are all welcome additions to the UK science and innovation base. But are we being naïve to think that government-mandated centres focusing on sectors where private firms in other countries are already making huge strides can lead to significant economic benefit for Britain?

Britain is already getting in on driverless vehicle trials through the forward-thinking test centre MIRA. But the technology development behind the cars is led largely by foreign car manufacturers and, surprisingly, Google.

It’s well documented now that the UK may be the place where graphene was discovered but other countries have rapidly gained the lead, registering far more patents on the use of the material.

Part of the problem appears to be that even with dedicated research and commercialisation centres we are automatically behind rival countries that have large firms backed by well-equipped supply chains when it comes to scaling up technology products.

If Britain was to produce a fantastic advance in quantum computing that led to a universally desirable product, how would we take advantage of this? It’s far more likely that a big foreign firm would buy up the technology, rather than it creating a home-grown giant to compete on the world stage.

The Technology Strategy Board’s director of innovation programmes, David Bott, points out that research centres represent only a part of the new industrial strategy, and that there are also sector programmes to try to identify the products and services that will fill a demand.

‘Being early isn’t always a virtue in business: you need to get there at the right time,’ he says. ‘I suspect the countries who are putting large amounts of money into graphene now, for example, will waste a lot of their money if they don’t know how to use the technology.’

Another argument is that our strong research base is part of what keeps international investment and manufacturing capability from the likes of Nissan in the UK. While we might not have a British-owned car maker we can still play a major role in the future of automotive production by making ourselves an attractive place for firms to develop and build electric or driverless vehicles.

But Bott argues we can go further than that. Autonomous cars aren’t separate products in and of themselves. They’re cars that have electronic and software systems added to them, and the UK can and is creating those products at lower levels of the supply chain.

‘That technology can be applied to cars, trains and all sorts of systems,’ he says. ‘Just because we don’t have the people that make the final product doesn’t mean we can’t make a lot of money out of all the systems and sub-systems.’

The attempt by government to pick technology sectors to get behind with relatively small but significant amounts of investment also represents the limit to what our politicians can actually do. Having allowed so much of British industry to waste away, it’s hard to see how government can rebuild it without resorting to a Stalinist five-year plan.

We need to be realistic about Britain’s ability to turn scientific excellence into economic growth, but on the other hand that doesn’t mean being pessimistic. Research centres and programmes aren’t the whole answer but they’re probably an important part of it.