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A fake suburb in Florida, complete with sidewalks, shops and parents out with their children. Huge chunks of highway given over to testing new types of machine. Tweaks to the law to get rid of side mirrors, and to allow drivers to watch a film while they are out for a spin in their new car.
It may sound like the stuff of sci-fi. But in fact, these are all measures that individual American states have taken in the last few months to try and capture a slice on what may well prove to be the biggest industry of the coming decade – the driverless car.
This country should learn a trick from that. We have already made some decent first steps towards easing the regulations that stand in the way of a flourishing new industry. But we should be doing a lot more. Why? Because we already have a surprisingly successful car industry.
And yet, if we could take the lead in driverless cars by deregulating faster and with more commitment than any other country in the EU, then we could create the biggest automobile industry on the continent, outstripping Germany and Spain. That would be a prize well worth having.
There isn’t yet a driverless car that you can buy at the local showroom. There is little question, however, that there soon will be, and once they arrive they have the potential to create a vast new industry.
A recent McKinsey study argued that ‘autonomous vehicles’, to use the jargon the industry has now adopted, could “profoundly affect a variety of industry sectors.”
The trucking industry, it argues, may well be the first to be fully automated, since the technology is most advanced, and the economic incentive to replace the tattooed, carbon-based driving mechanism with some smarter and cheaper software is very high.
But between 2020 and 2040, McKinsey expects the driverless car to become mainstream, and it may well be totally dominating the industry by 2050.
That will mean a lot more than just re-tooling the Nissan and Land Rover factories to get rid of the steering wheels. Just as the first mass produced cars a hundred years ago redesigned the way cities were built and the types of jobs people did, the driverless car should prove just as revolutionary.
As the Bank of England pointed out in a recent blog, driverless cars won’t just change the auto industry – the insurance business will be turned upside down as well, since software powered cars will have far few accidents, and the arguments will all be between IT departments rather than irate drivers.
And it doesn’t stop there. County pubs and restaurants will be transformed – we will all be able to drink again, and get the car to take us home. Childcare will be turned upside down – after that hockey game, a fleet of driverless cars will pick up the kids while their mums and dads finish up in the office at their leisure.
We may not even bother to own cars any more – McKinsey predicts that fleets of peer-to-peer owned cars may well be created that we just book as and when we need them. Vast chunks of extra work time will be opened up as we can all busy ourselves on the laptop as we head into the office.
More land will be made available in city centres, because robots will be so much better at parking – at least better than me, anyway – so we’ll need less space for the cars. In short, the economic impact will ripple out in dozens of unexpected directions, creating at least as much disruption and as many opportunities as the internet has done in the last twenty years.
That will inevitably pose a threat to some companies – but it will also be an opportunity for others. The potential is there for the UK to get ahead of the competition, and to create the most deregulated market possible so that this country becomes the laboratory where new technologies and new business models are allowed to flourish.
We have made some progress. Although this is generally a fairly hostile country for motorists, with high fuel taxes, congestion charges, millions of speed cameras and traffic wardens who pounce on the most minor of transgressions, so far we have been encouraging driverless cars.
The Department of Transport is helping fund test centres, and the whole country will be opened up to trials of new vehicles. A study is already underway on changing the Highway Code to permit new types of driving. The Spring Budget included £100m in grants to match industry funding for research into the sector.
• Government invests £20m into testing driverless cars
• How driverless cars could revolutionise old age
Yet much more needs to be done. Take those American examples. Florida is building whole fake towns where the vehicles can be tested and tweaked until they are perfect. So are several other states. Some are starting to change laws that require side mirrors to be perfect – software programmes don’t glance in the mirror to check what is around them. Others are amending the rules on allowing people to watch films while driving – the main problem for humans inside driverless cars, it turns out, is that they get bored, so aren’t able to respond if there is a problem and they need to take control.
Motoring is intensely regulated, and laws that have built up over a century will have to be scrapped. It should be fine to text people from an autonomous vehicle – after all, what else will you do? Tail-gating will be perfectly normal, since the software will be perfectly capable of judging what distance it needs to stop safely.
The unions can be expected to fight fiercely for humans to remain in charge of every type of commercial vehicle, even where it is completely unnecessary – it will take courage to face them down, especially as jobs will inevitably be lost. But it’s not just unions. The insurance industry is huge, and has plenty of clout – and will try to pretend we need expensive policies even after they have become totally pointless. They will need to be faced down as well.
Since the nadir of the 1970s, the UK has re-built a very successful car industry. We built 1.5 million cars last year, the highest total since before the crash. We have overtaken France for the first time since 1966. But we still lag behind Spain with 1.7 million vehicles built a year, and even further behind Germany with more than 5 million rolling off the production lines every year.
But competitive deregulation is the best form of industrial strategy, and one the UK has been good at in the past. It should not be hard to overtake France, where even the car-sharing service Uber has faced protests and legal action, and we should be able to steal a march on the ultra-conservative Germans.
If we took the lead in autonomous vehicles, we could over-take the Germans, the Spanish and the French in a huge new industry. We just need to keep our foot on that accelerator – while browsing some play-lists on Spotify and sending a few e-mails of course.
Source: The Daily Telegraph