The government is awarding £25 million this week to as many as six projects that will research and test autonomous vehicles on highways and on trials of remote-control parking. It’s the second competition in a program that Richard Harrington, the UK’s automotive minister, predicts will lead to driverless cars in production within the next decade.
Britain’s post-Brexit industrial strategy has a heavy focus on technology, with artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles being two areas at the heart of it. The nation is going up against the US, which is further advanced in both technologies. Some policy makers expect that leaving the European Union will allow it to offer subsidies and tax breaks that are currently restricted under common market rules.
“It’s a very exciting thing, we want to provide the right environment for people to come to this country and invest,” Harrington said in an interview in London.
In the US, technology giants such as Alphabet Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. already have autonomous-car projects up and running across several states. General Motors Co., with a 2.25 billion investment from Softbank’s Vision Fund, intends to be the first automaker to bring an autonomous taxi service to public roads in 2019. China also is experimenting with the technology, with government supporting industry on a number of projects.
The UK forecasts the global driverless vehicle market will be worth £907 billion by 2035 and it wants a piece of the pie. Last year, it set aside £250 million to be allocated before 2020 for companies to analyse self-driving vehicles in environments from city streets to highways and to fund prototype demonstration projects.
Harrington is undaunted. Autonomous vehicles are an area “where we feel we’ve got a competitive advantage,” he said. “One thing that I think I would go with for this country is the strength of the universities.”
The freedom to set its own regulatory environment separately from the EU may also help, according to Nigel Parker, a partner at Allen & Overy LLP.
“This could end up being one of those areas where the government spots an opportunity to make a successful Brexit,” Parker said. “There’s an advantage to being able to set your own laws, but equally there’s a disadvantage in not being aligned with the rest of Europe.”
Oxbotica Ltd., one of the companies that has received government funding, is leading a 13 million-pound project to program fleets of autonomous vehicles to drive together between London and Oxford.
“Not everything happens in California,” said Paul Newman, Oxbotica’s founder. “The UK government gets that robotics and autonomous systems is a long play. It isn’t just self-driving cars, it’s all the vehicles — from mines to airports to cars to warehouses.”
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