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Fleets of driverless cars linked together by satellite should take to the roads in Britain to ease congestion, a minister said yesterday.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, said that technology putting computers in almost complete control of the road network would also cut emissions and improve road safety.
The government announced yesterday that driverless cars would be allowed on the road from the beginning of next year. Three cities will be selected as testing grounds. The government will also review road regulations to cope with the new technology.
Dr Cable suggested that the first fully autonomous vehicle could be ready for public use in five to ten years if experiments went well and road regulations were reformed.
“You won’t get cars suddenly bursting onto the roads without proper preparation. It will be very carefully done, but we want to try them out in the real world,” he said. “The idea of using cities rather than test centres is that [the cars] are used in a real-world environment. It will take a while for a whole system to evolve but the potential is there.
“What we now need to see happening is linking individual cars through satellite technology, so you get fleets controlled, not just individual vehicles.”
Dr Cable described a test run in a driverless car at the MIRA vehicle centre in Nuneaton as “unnerving” at first but otherwise smooth, comfortable and reassuring.
Tim Edwards, principal engineer at MIRA, said that its test car was designed with urban driving in mind and the technology was “quite low cost”.
Britain lags behind the United States and Japan in developing and testing driverless car technology. Google is testing a self-driving car in Los Angeles that has no steering wheel and has covered more than 300,000 miles. However, a recent Ipsos MORI poll suggested that only 18 per cent of the public thought that manufacturers should concentrate on driverless technology. Half said that collision avoidance and lane departure systems were important.
The department for business, innovation and skills and the transport department are asking cities to bid for a share of a £10 million grant to test driverless cars. Up to three cities will be selected for trials lasting up to three years.
Nick Connor, managing director of Volvo UK, said: “Driverless cars . . . can make our roads safer, our air cleaner and our cities less congested.”
Simon Segars, the chief executive of ARM Holdings, which provides technology for in-car systems, said: “People are going to have to get used to there being no driver. It will take longer than anyone expects.”
Meanwhile, peers are to investigate the use of drones in civilian life. A House of Lords committee will examine the privacy and security implications of the growing number of drones in use across Europe.
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