The driverless car revolution that keeps on not coming

In early January, the  Department for Transport (DfT) boasted that the UK “was on the cusp of a transport revolution” with the self-driving vehicles market  expected to reach £42bn by 2035.

The optimistic estimate came from a report from the   “Catapult” programme which is funded by the government’s Innovate UK programme and has already sucked up £200m of taxpayers money to promote the development of autonomous vehicles. In fact we have been on ‘the cusp’ for some time. In 2017, Catapult predicted in a similar report the market would be worth £29bn by 2035.

Yet, nothing has happened in between to justify this optimism. Progress on the technology has stalled, targets have been missed, Uber has pulled out of developing its own vehicles and  other companies have expressed doubts about their feasibility.Every target predicting when various aspects of the technology would be available has been missed.

So far no one has made a penny from selling driverless cars –  despite tens of billions of dollars being spent worldwide in R & D. Philip Hammond, when Chancellor in 2017, predicted the Uk would have  ‘fully driverless cars without a safety driver’ by 2021. No chance – the technology is far from ready and in any event the legislation does not exist to allow autonomous cars on public roads.

Similarly, trials of driverless lorries in the UK originally scheduled for 2019, have still not taken place. Thus the DfT  is left to hype the success of  what few road experiments have taken place in order to justify the continued expenditure . Last week’s  press release mentioned the ‘the Streetwise project in London in 2019, which saw self-driving vehicles carrying commuters to and from work’. Except, the trial simply involved taking 100 passengers on a 13-mile a pre-determined circuit around south London in a car with a safety driver starting and finishing at the same spot – from where the ‘commuters’ made their own way to work. On the plus note there were no disasters.