Why the UK wants driverless cars on its roads by January

Faster, faster!
Faster, faster!
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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The UK is finally catching up. The government announced that it will put driverless cars on public roads as early as January 2015. This comes as a result of an infrastructure plan announced in December 2013, outlining a £10 million ($16.7 million) investment to bring the technology to Britain’s roads. More significantly, the government will hold a public review on how to adapt road regulations for driverless vehicles.

The government is giving three UK cities the chance to make their case to host the trials. It’s part of an ongoing effort to ensure the UK doesn’t lag behind in an international race that could attract companies and bring high-tech jobs to the country. Currently, the UK’s weakness isn’t the technology, but getting it into field trials: Some experimenting is already being done, including an iPad-controlled car at Oxford University, but the lack of a legal framework for things like insurance and legal liability has restricted the machines to private roads.

Once the UK can figure out those rules, it can join an already swelling group of countries testing the technology. In May, Google unveiled plans to test self-driving cars without steering wheels (though at a top speed of 25 miles or 40km per hour, they’re little more than electric buggies). A few days ago, Chinese search engine Baidu confirmed it’s in the early stages of the same tech. But California has already approved tests of the vehicles on public roads, in addition to Nevada and Florida. In California alone, Google’s driverless car has done more than 300,000 miles. In addition to those three states, Google is lobbying for similar bills (paywall) to change the rules of the road in Hawaii, New Jersey, Oklahoma and the District of Columbia.

Other countries like Japan and Germany have already tested autonomous vehicles on public streets, while countries like France and Sweden are working to incorporate the technology in the near future.