Several pilot schemes examining the potential of self-driving cars are already underway in Britain but until now, the vehicles have been prohibited from using public roads.
That could change overnight. Following a six-month review, the UK government on Wednesday officially cleared the way for real-world testing to commence.
"Driverless cars are the future. I want Britain to be at the forefront of this exciting new development, to embrace a technology that could transform our roads and open up a brand new route for global investment," said the UK Transport Minister, Clair Perry. "These are still early days but today is an important step. The trials present a fantastic opportunity for this country to take a lead internationally in the development of this new technology."
Four different projects are currently underway in different British cities and include an automated shuttle service called the Meridian, which looks not too dissimilar to a golf buggy, and which will ferry commuters and tourists between destinations in Greenwich, southeast London.
However, the project that's bound to grab the most attention is currently gearing up in Milton Keynes and will see specially developed two-seater ‘pods' take to the pavement, rather than the road. The cars have a top speed of just 15mph (24km/h) and a 40-mile (64km) range and will follow a predefined route through the city.
Developed in partnership with the University of Oxford, the pod cars, which have been christened Lutz Pathfinders, will have to have remarkable sensors, obstacle recognition and navigation capabilities as they will be sharing the footpath with pedestrians and will need to be able to avoid other pavement users.
Now that the government's review period has concluded, the next step will be to introduce a code of practice regarding how companies go about testing autonomous cars on the road. This will be published in the spring.
As such, the UK is now well on the way to catching up with the US and other European nations who are already giving support and resources to the development of self-driving vehicles.
In several US states self-driving cars are already permitted on the highway as long as the paperwork is in order and the ‘driver' holds the appropriate license. In Sweden the streets of Gothenburg have been turned into a testing ground for autonomous Volvos, and over in Germany, work is well underway digitizing stretches of the autobahn to facilitate car-to-car communication and to create lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles.
According to the UK government's Business Secretary, Vince Cable, the industry surrounding self-driving cars and autonomous vehicle technology is expected to be worth £900 billion (€1.2 trillion) by 2025 and the move to allow testing on public roads is to ensure that Britain retains its place at the forefront of automotive innovation.
"The UK is at the cutting edge of automotive technology -- from the all-electric cars built in Sunderland, to the formula 1 expertise in the Midlands," said Cable. "The projects we are now funding in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry will help ensure we are world-leaders in this field."