The UK is opening up its roads to driverless cars, with the government announcing this week that it wants to take a "light touch, non-regulatory approach" to trials of autonomous vehicles. The decision comes after a six-month review of the country's suitability for driverless tech, with the government confirming that current laws are no barrier to testing, and that £19 million ($29 million) in funding will be handed out to four pilot schemes across the country.
However, this doesn't mean that UK residents can expect to see empty hatchbacks roaming the streets anytime soon. In terms of actual utility the projects scheduled for trials later this year are more like localized shuttles than actual cars: they'll operate in limited numbers, mostly in pedestrianised areas, they won't be available for public use, and they'll always have a licensed driver behind the wheel.
THESE AREN'T CARS — THEY'RE SHUTTLES
The government plans to introduce a new "code of practice" to regulate the trials, a non-legislative approach that it says will be "more flexible and less onerous ... than the regulatory approach being followed in other countries, notably in the US." No doubt this refers to the fact that although America was the first country to introduce laws covering driverless cars the vehicles are only currently legal in four states. In Europe, only Germany and Sweden have carried out similar legal reviews. The UK government also announced that it does plan to introduce actual legislation in 2017 that would cover more complex issues — such as liability in the case of a crash.
The Uk wants the law to be "more flexible and less onerous" than in America
The schemes currently planned for the UK aren't likely to cause any pile-ups however — two of them use electrical vehicles that can't travel much faster than a run, while the third only includes a single vehicle. The two projects using electric cars are scheduled to begin testing later this year: that's the Lutz Pathfinder Pod in Milton Keynes and Coventry, and the Meridian shuttle in the southern London borough of Greenwich. The final project is run by Venturer and will be operating out of Bristol, but only consists of single, repurposed military jeep, and won't hit the streets until 2016.
Of the more immediate projects, the Lutz is the more futuristic looking of the two, with angular wheel caps and a windscreen that arches over the top of the two-seater cab. The Meridian is bigger but looks more like a double-ended golf cart, with a sort of circular seating pit that fits ten and looks fit for shuttling tourists around at Disney World. Neither are particularly fast (the Lutz has a top speed of 15mph while the Meridian can't go faster than 12mph) and both will stick to primarily pedestrianized areas.
It's a small step for now, but the UK government obviously has big plans to open up development as fast possible. Who knows what might grow out of these little pods?