Assuming what people want from the self-driving vehicle revolution could lead to dead ends

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When shaping the future of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), the public needs to be consulted writes Ben Winter, head of engagement, programme and skills at Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV)

“It’s nice to be asked, but aren’t you the experts here?”

I was surprised to hear this response from a recent focus group participant, when asked for views on how self-driving vehicles could benefit people in the UK.

Perhaps it was a response I should have expected. After all, the public is constantly exposed to new technologies, trusting in the government’s role to ensure they are safe and used responsibly. But when it comes to something as revolutionary as connected and automated mobility (CAM), government and industry must not assume what people want from it – questions must be properly asked and considered.

The UK government has certainly taken it upon itself to become a proactive authority in the self-driving revolution. By setting up CCAV in 2015 – a unit dedicated to shaping the safe and secure emergence of connected and self-driving vehicles – government signalled a clear intention to ensure the technology is developed and deployed in a way that delivers strong economic and social benefits for the nation.

The arguments for CAM are widely touted. Public transport could be made greener, more efficient, and more affordable. Access to transport for people with mobility issues could be dramatically improved. Needless urban congestion and road collisions due to human error could become a thing of the past.

It could also open the UK up to significant new economic opportunities, with a recent study by the Connected Places Catapult estimating that the CAV sector could be worth £48bn to the country by 2035, creating 38,000 new skilled jobs.

Ben Winter, head of engagement, programme and skills at Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV)

This is why the UK government has worked with industry since 2015 to invest £440m in CAM, while delivering an ambitious regulatory reform programme to establish the nation as a global powerhouse for the safe testing and development of the technology. Large-scale projects such as the CCAV-funded CAM Testbed UK ecosystem – the only place worldwide with the capability to take ideas from concept to development both virtually and physically, all within a three-hour drive – have demonstrated the government’s ability to quickly boost industry’s capabilities to bring these technologies and services to UK streets.

Although industry will be key to developing and deploying CAM services, the government’s role in shaping the way these exciting new technologies are introduced is essential and will remain so long into the future.

Safety and security are paramount, and government action has meant that the UK has already earned a reputation as a world leader in areas such as CAM cyber security.

Legislation to ensure legal clarity is also critical; the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act of 2018 and the pioneering three-year Law Commissions’ review into current laws have put the UK on a clear path towards a comprehensive legal framework.

There is also a question as to how CAM integrates seamlessly into our existing transport network and what digital and physical infrastructure is needed to do so: a key consideration of the government’s Future of Transport Programme.

But even a thriving CAM sector and a proactive government strategy might not be enough to secure the benefits of automated mobility. The fact remains that without properly consulting with the public and bringing them with us on the journey towards deployment, we will never allow the technology to deliver on its full promise.

Governments and developers around the world must be committed to developing and deploying CAM in a way that improves everyday lives, and we can only do so by working together to put people at the heart of policy making.

We might be the experts, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop asking questions.

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