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UK gov draws driverless car test zone around M40 corridor

No need for top hats and red flags says secretary of state

A UK minister has reassured the motor industry that buyers of driverless cars will not have to employ a gentleman with a red flag and top hat as he outlined a UK testbed for autonomous vehicles yesterday.

Speaking at the SMTT Connected conference in London, industry secretary Greg Clark outlined a “cluster of excellence” stretching from London to, er, Birmingham into which the government will direct its support in its efforts to establish the UK as a leader in autonomous vehicles.

Clark will be giving the area a boost in the coming weeks with announcement of the first tranche of funding from a £100m investment programme for the creation of test facilities for connected and autonomous vehicles.

The cluster roughly corresponds to the M40 corridor, and auto history buffs will recognise it as the resting place of British motoring brand names - it’s no coincidence that the British Motor Museum is just off the M40.

But while the memory of British Leyland et al might be fading from the collective consciousness, Clark banged the drum for the UK’s contribution in the autonomous and connected vehicle space. The government has thrown its weight behind the sector as part of its industrial strategy.

A bill laying out the government's regulatory regime for connected and autonomous vehicles is currently working its way through Parliament, which amongst other things will clarify liability issues in the event of accidents.

Clark, in common with other speakers at the conference yesterday., emphasised the safety and societal benefits of driverless technology. Road fatalities in the UK are now 3,600 per year, compared to 6,400 in 1975. Given that 95 per cent of crashes involve human error, taking the human out of the equation will result in a massive drop in road deaths, the reasoning goes.

One audience member raised the point that there had already been accidents and fatalities involving partially autonomous cars, and asked whether a few deaths were a price worth paying for the UK to be a world leader in the sector.

Clark said that “of course you need to tread carefully.”

But he said, this was “lifesaving technology” and it “would be wrong to convey the idea that this is inherently risky technology.

“Human error is a more dependable source of accidents and fatalities than well tested, well demonstrated, and well regulated technologies,” Clark said.

“We don’t want to get back to waving a red flag in front of vehicles on the road…. We can get it right and we need to have that common sense application that this is about making changes that will save lives.”

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