We'll see no red flag flying here
The driving force for all this is the roll-out of autonomous vehicles, with their demand for constant mapping of their surroundings and the feeding of this information to nearby cars. “If you cast your mind back to the dawn of the motor industry, the UK was held back by regulation," said Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Robert Goodwill*. "It wasn’t until the Red Flag Act was repealed that the motor industry got going.”
He wants similar reforms to enable the UK to pioneer self-driving cars and sees the plans to test driverless cars in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry as a sign that the current government is giving the necessary backing. He says that the UK will lead the world, although the timescales are very similar to those given by Volvo for Gothenburg.
Ed Vaizey* said that the government was only interested in aggregated data. He didn’t want to know if an individual was speeding, but if people were regularly speeding in a particular place. This is presumably so that if lots of people regularly speed in a place and there are no accidents, they can raise the speed limit (yeah, right). Vaziey was clear that data is owned by the individual and it’s only anonymised, aggregated data which should be shared.
He also said that as a Conservative, he should naturally be against government interference with industry, but that he saw the development of British tech in this field as important enough to warrant funding. He confirmed that there was an £150m highways innovation fund to help with this, but added that he realised the legal framework wasn’t ready for autonomous cars yet.
With all the SMMT flag-waving there is good work going on in the UK, with Infineon in Bristol and VNC Automotive in Cambridge among others working towards the vision of the connected car, but it’s a global industry.
Both the government and the SMMT seem to have their hearts in the right place, but there is too much which doesn’t work. Mirrorlink is a great idea to allow people to have their phone screen reflected on the car screen, except it won’t work on the non-rectangular screens which are so popular on cars. This needs to be fixed. A car might have a life of 18 years, while a phone might have a life of 18 months. People expect to be able to use their their new phones in their existing cars.
Mike Bell of Jaguar Land Rover said at the event: “Our customers are wedded to their smart devices. It’s not just what we build, it’s what our customers bring into it.”
There is too much phone technology which the car industry doesn’t understand. Speakers speculated that road signs might be updated by mobile, without understanding that GSM has had cell broadcast technology which could do this for a couple of decades now, and that LTE-B is designed with this purpose in mind.
Today we have cars which can park themselves while cars which can follow each other on motorways are not that far off. Joining those bits together to create cars which can navigate a town is going to need huge strides in data transmission, so that the machines know what they are getting into.
John Leech of KPMG and MP Robert Goodwill might be realistic in their belief that we’ll see self-driving cars in the UK by 2025. But that’s a hugely aggressive timescale for the car industry and it won’t happen unless they get help from the mobile side of things. ®
* All government ministers mentioned in this article are currently not MPs due to the dissolution of Parliament for May's General Election.