UK Gov bets big on AVs

The launch of PAVE UK and the progress of the Automated Vehicles Bill underscore the UK's commitment to innovation and safety in the realm of autonomous vehicles.

Last week I was invited to the launch of Partners for Automated Vehicle Education United Kingdom (PAVE UK), a public-private self-driving initiative organised by WMG at The University of Warwick. I took a taxi to Gare du Nord, where the UK Government has just installed biometric e-readers that scan your passport without a customs officer in a booth. From Paddigton station I tapped in and out with Apple Pay; I finally needed to interact with another human when the concierge took my jacket at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, where PAVE UK was having its launch to build public confidence in self-driving technology.

PAVE and its partners in the private and public sectors are part of the UK government’s ambition to position the country as an AV and AI leader. Anthony Browne MP (responsible for transport decarbonization in the UK government), and Professor Sarah Sharples (Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Transport) were keynote speakers. They made it clear that the UK is backing AVs, big time. Browne said: “Self-driving vehicles have the potential to transform our transport sector and we’re making sure that these vehicles are safe to use on our roads. Our Automated Vehicles Bill sets a rigorous standard for safety, whilst making sure that this country is where businesses can develop and deploy their cutting-edge technology.”

The Automated Vehicles Bill has passed from the House of Lords to the House of Commons. If enacted, the bill would be “one of the most comprehensive legal frameworks of its kind anywhere in the world for self-driving vehicles.”

During the networking lunch I caught up with some key players in the UK’s AV industry. They are convinced that the advantages of self-driving technology will overcome the challenges and are not perturbed by a bunch of recent AV setbacks: ZF stopped making autonomous shuttles, Apple cancelled “Project Titan” (its EV/AV play), GM’s Cruize had their permit suspended, and a crowd set a Waymo robotaxi alight in San Francisco.

But having spent the day at the PAVE UK launch, it was clear to me that AVs have a future and that the UK is quickly becoming an AV leader. This week, Oxford based Oxa (a self-driving software stack) announced their first commercial deployment of Oxa Driver, with an autonomous shuttle service in Jacksonville, Florida, operated by Beep and the Jacksonville Transport Authority.

AVs are the final step in removing humans from mobility; and they offer great potential to further decarbonize transport. A few years ago my trip from Paris to London would have had three or four human touch points; now it only has one – the driver for the first and last mile. The 3 km journey from my apartment to the Gare du Nord in Paris costs €2 by bus and €15 by taxi. That’s a big price difference for a small saving in time. Buses have to be big with frequent stops to cover the costs of the driver. Autonomous Shuttles do not have that limitation. The hope is that AV Shuttles will operate more routes with fewer stops, giving the passenger an experience similar to a taxi at the cost of a bus ticket. This is the holy grail for cities and public transport authorities that want to decarbonise by reducing single car ownership and driving.

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