You could soon see self-driving buses and delivery vans on UK roads as the government launches a £40m ($50m) competition to bring this technology to the market.
The funding to kick-start commercial self-driving services, such as delivery vehicles and passenger shuttles, will help bring together companies and investors so that sustainable business models to be rolled out nationally and exported globally.
The Commercialising Connected and Automated Mobility competition will provide grants to help roll out commercial use self-driving vehicles across the UK from 2025.
Types of self-driving vehicles that could be deployed include delivery vans, passenger buses, shuttles and pods, as well as vehicles that move people and luggage at airports and containers at shipping ports.
The competition aims to unlock a new industry that could be worth £42bn to the UK economy by 2035, potentially creating 38,000 new skilled jobs.
Minister for investment Lord Grimstone said: “Self-driving vehicles have the potential to revolutionise people’s lives, whether it’s by helping to better connect people who rely on public transport with jobs, local shops, and vital services, or by making it easier for those who have mobility issues to order and access services conveniently.
“This funding will help unlock the incredible potential of this new and growing industry, building on the continued development of self-driving technology, attracting investment and helping make our transport cleaner, safer and more efficient."
Some £1.5m of the funding will be used to study and explore using self-driving vehicles as a means of public transport that could provide an alternative to mass transit systems.
The first vehicles to be listed as self-driving in the UK — vehicles approved under the Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) Regulation — could be available for people to purchase, lease or rent later this year.
Transport minister Trudy Harrison said: “We know that self-driving vehicles have the potential to revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys cleaner, easier and more reliable. But our absolute priority is harnessing the technology to improve road safety.
“With around 88% of road collisions currently caused by human error, this funding will drive the introduction of new technology to improve travel for all, while boosting economic growth and highly skilled jobs across the nation.”
The UK is currently developing a legal and assurance framework for self-driving vehicles to ensure the safety of the technology.
The changes to the code will help ensure the first wave of technology will be used safely, explaining clearly that while travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way if they are prompted to — such as when they approach motorway exits.
The plans also include a change to current regulation, allowing drivers to view content that is not related to driving on built-in display screens, while the self-driving vehicle is in control.
It will, however, still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode, given the greater risk they pose in distracting drivers as shown in research.
Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes said: “Self-driving vehicles offer major benefits to society — improving road safety, supporting new jobs and economic growth, and enabling greater mobility for everyone — so the UK is rightly seeking to be at the forefront of this technological evolution.
“Recent regulatory reforms have helped Britain establish itself as a leader in the rollout out of self-driving passenger vehicles, and today’s announcement is a significant step towards self-driving public transport and goods delivery services becoming a reality.
“This new funding competition will help drive innovation and, potentially, private investment in UK automotive, ensuring cutting-edge self-driving technology finds a clearer path to UK roads.”
The UK's first full-sized driverless bus is already being tested on the roads of Scotland, operating across the Forth Road Bridge between Fife and Edinburgh Park.
A recent survey by UCL researchers revealed preference among the UK public for self-driving public transport compared to other self-driving vehicles.