Self-driving cars have already logged hundreds of thousands of miles of road testing in the United States, where Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL) has been developing its own robotic driving technology since the fall of 2010. Since then, virtually every major auto manufacturer has begun its own driverless experiments.
Following the lead of California and four other U.S. states, which have passed laws permitting driverless cars on public roads, Britain is moving forward with its own policy to promote the technology.
Business Secretary Vince Cable issued a statement Wednesday announcing a government initiative to fast-track the adoption of driverless cars.
“Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months,” Cable said.
British cities can now bid for funding to host local driverless car trials as part of a $16.9 million program folded into a broad infrastructure development plan announced in December. This week’s announcement offers more details.
Three cities will be selected to host driverless car trials starting in January. These trials will test what the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls Level 3 and Level 4 autonomous driving. Level 3 automation allows drivers to cede most command of the vehicle, but they must remain at the wheel for some control. Google’s earlier driverless vehicles were Level 3, but earlier this year the company debuted a Level 4 driverless car, which requires no human intervention and doesn’t even have a steering wheel.
The British initiative will hold trial runs for up to 36 months in the three selected cities while the government reviews road regulations “to establish how the U.K. can remain at the forefront of driverless car technology,” said Wednesday’s announcement. Cities have until Oct. 1 to submit their bids for the program to the government’s Technology Strategy Board.
Last summer, Oxford University announced it would use Nissan cars to test autonomous driving on U.K. roads. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (TYO:7201) is already testing its version of the technology on Japanese roads and says its automated cars could be in production as early as 2020. Google says its self-driving car technology will be available to the public in 2017. Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk has said his Model S sedan and Model X crossover (due out next spring) would be ready for autonomous driving options by 2016.
General Motors Co. (NYSE:GM), Toyota Motor Corporation (TYO:7203) and Volkswagen-owned Audi AG (ETR:NSU) are all working on fully autonomous cars for the mass market.
Many of the features required for semi-autonomous or fully autonomous driving are already in cars on the market today, such as the sensors required for cars to autonomously brake faster than the human driver can react when a collision is imminent.