Autumn Budget – An encouraging outlook for the future of driverless cars

Strangely, a widely trailed Budget pledge which didn’t make the Chancellor’s speech today may be one of the most important for the future of British manufacturing and the economy. Automated vehicles have enormous potential for UK plc as well as for our society more broadly, saving lives and offering transport solutions to people currently unable to drive.

We were expecting a big announcement. However, although the Chancellor’s speech did not mention this specifically – page 46 (4.16) of the Autumn Budget contained a section that is hugely encouraging for everyone working on projects such as VENTURER and also showcases the value of these trials to the advancement of CAV technology:

The government wants to see fully self-driving cars, without a human operator, on UK roads by 2021. The government will therefore make world-leading changes to the regulatory framework, such as setting out how driverless cars can be tested without a human safety operator. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) will also launch a new innovation prize to determine how future roadbuilding should adapt to support self-driving cars.

Thinking back, my first recollection of the Government’s intention in this area was noted with a single sentence in the Treasury’s 2013 National Infrastructure Plan which set aside an initial £10 million for the testing of ‘driverless vehicles’.

This led to AXA’s first meeting in the summer of 2014 at the offices of the Bristol City Council, with what would later become the VENTURER project. Whilst prospective partners were excited about the potential of the technology, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that only three years later, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be setting 2021 as the target for getting connected and autonomous vehicles on UK roads.

It should be emphasised at this point, I think, that the reason for the Treasury’s confidence in setting this date, is partly down to the work many people have put in across the country on VENTURER and other similar projects.

From AXA’s perspective, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill making its way through Parliament at the moment provides the foundation for an evolving insurance and legal framework which will be capable of changing as more advancements are made in this area.

We absolutely back the Bill and believe it is right not to over legislate at this stage. After all, if the desire is to see the UK at the forefront of this market, then the last thing we should be doing is stifling innovation.

As it stands, the Bill will provide an effective strict liability on insurers to pay out in the event of an accident involving an automated vehicle. This is hugely important for consumer trust; safety and the compensation of those injured remain at the core of the legislation.

Yes, we have questions to answer in terms of the length of handover from vehicle to a human driver and vice versa and on how data will be collected and shared with third parties, such as insurers, to process a claim as quickly as possible. There are also the new and emerging risks such as cyber-security to consider as we progress.

That’s why projects like VENTURER are really important. They allow a broad consortium of academics, local authorities, technology companies, engineering experts, roboticists and yes, lawyers and insurers too, to come together to test and validate all aspects of automated vehicles.

The pace of change is truly rapid! Today’s Budget absolutely confirms that and if you don’t believe me just think what you would have made of this blog had it been written only a few years ago. 2021 is not far away at all!

Daniel O’Byrne

Head of Public Affairs, AXA