Self-Driving Cars: The UK on the Precipice of an Automated World

Benedict Robinson for Distilled Post

The 80s brought us the mobile phone; the 90s the internet. The 2000s saw smartphones rapidly take over our lives, while the 2010s were characterised by a societal infatuation with social media, streaming, and wearable technology - all things drenched in the glamour and glitz of consumer convenience.

So what will the 2020s bring us?

Everything, it seems. From the burgeoning AI storm to a metaphorical buffet of virtual reality experiences in the entertainment industry. 

All of this seems chaotic, hectic, and uncertain. But one development that not only seems certain but imminent and far more coordinated than the others, for that matter, is that of automated driving.

It seems the 2020s will be the decade that automated vehicles, or “autos” for short, seriously take off. Though still playing catch-up to global pioneers like Singapore and China, the UK has emerged as a frontrunner in the game.

Progress in Blighty

Last year, the UK government released their “Connected & Automated Mobility 2025” document, a detailed, if a little vacuous, outline of their plans to realise the immediate benefits of self-driving vehicles. In it, £100 million of research and development funding is awarded to promote automated vehicles in the UK;  a split of £66 million and £34 million to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Department for Transport (DfT) respectively. 

The government has a three-pronged approach to integrating self-driving cars. Ensuring safety comes first and foremost, but then comes delivering the benefits, both economically and socially.

Said benefits are becoming apparent more quickly than expected as less than six months after this proposal, on February 1st this year, the government made another announcement concerning their progress in this field. Another grant of £81 million, composed roughly equally of government and industry contributions, has been bestowed on seven projects to “accelerate self-driving vehicle innovation”.

Among these seven projects is the world’s first fully sized, self-driving bus service in Edinburgh, operated by Stagecoach and Alexander Dennis. The service will consist of five buses and cover a 14-mile route, including a trip across the Forth Bridge. It is noteworthy to add, however, that these buses will not be entirely human-absent, at least not yet. A safety driver will be present to monitor the technology, accompanied by a “bus captain” to aid customers with tickets and queries. Ironically, for now, the “driverless” buses require twice the number of staff as their more primitive counterparts.

Other projects include an automated HGV scheme in Sunderland, a zero-emissions project for Asda, and self-driving shuttles in places such as Belfast, Solihull, and Coventry.

How will they shape up?

Of the investments, then Secretary of State for BEIS, Grant Schapps, claimed that automated vehicles “could add tens of billions to our economy and create tens of thousands of jobs across the UK” in a matter of years, branding them a “massive opportunity” to grow the UK’s economy. 

These projects in and of themselves represent meagre economic savings and serve more as testers, industrial toe dippers to see if the bath water of automation is the right temperature. However, self-driving vehicles overall, when scaled up to a societal level, present huge economic advantages. One report from Morgan Stanley on the United States estimates that the country’s total savings after a large-scale integration of self-driving vehicles could be around $1.5 trillion, or around 7% of their GDP.

This offers a substantial incentive for corporations, though clearly at a human cost, but automated vehicles also present financial opportunities elsewhere. The obvious being an erasure of the issues caused by human drivers. Road accidents would be negligible, traffic all but eliminated due to the increased efficiency and lack of accidents that cause most jams. There would be huge savings in fuel costs as cars could get to places much more efficiently. 

Increased worker productivity as it would now be possible to work on the commute, plus less driving fatigue, means workers in the US could contribute an estimated $507 billion to the economy. 

What are the drawbacks?

Clearly, the concept has many tantalising benefits. Fuel efficiency, a reduction in deaths from road accidents, corporate savings. But the shiny world of automation is not without its drawbacks. 

Despite Shapps claiming it will create “tens of thousands” of jobs, trade unions such as GMB think differently and demand “cast-iron guarantees” to prevent millions from falling into unemployment. While their opponents have pointed out that the aforementioned bus services, for example, actually require more staff than the conventional alternative, they do raise a valid case for when automation excels to a point where human supervision is no longer required.

Additionally, many proponents of self-driving vehicles will point to the environmental benefits of fuel efficiency (both the battery and fuel usage are affected massively by driving style, continuous speed shifts, repeated braking and so on) and the social benefits of reduced parking spaces and congestion in cities. However, environmentalists would point to trains and public transportation. This technology is not as flashy as self-driving cars but is cheaper, already exists, and is significantly better at addressing these issues than cars will ever be, human-operated or not.

The bottom line is that, with a predicted 40% of new car sales having at least some form of self-driving capabilities by 2035, this is an industry we cannot ignore. And while it poses some significant risks to the workforce, the potential benefits are undeniable.