U.K. Government Jumps On The Autonomous Robot Bandwagon, Sort Of

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The U.K. government appears to be taking a leaf out of Jeff Bezos’ Massive Book Of Marketing Genius — by spicing up the dry digital tome that is its 2013 National Infrastructure Plan, which sets out infrastructure investment priorities for the next decade or so — by inserting a paragraph committing to encouraging the development of a robot-powered driverless future in this green and pleasant land.

It’s not committing to anything as specific as building actual driverless infrastructure itself at this point, because, y’know, that might come across as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Being as the technology itself isn’t even ready for the prime time (driverless cars have terrible trouble dealing with snow, for one thing), let alone the people/motoring lobby being prepared to relinquish agency of their four-wheeled friends (‘they can wrench the steering wheel out of my cold, dead hands’ etc).

Rather its non-quantifiable “aim” is to “make the UK a world centre for the testing and development of driverless cars” — whatever that means. (I did ask HM Treasury for more details but the duty press officer said everyone was likely to be very busy with today’s Autumn Statement. In other words: the driverless future can wait).

In the NIP, the government says it will conduct a review to ensure that the legislative and regulatory framework is in place to support its driverless aim. This review will report by the end of next year. It’s also waving some cash at the ambition — with a plan to create a “£10 million prize fund for a town or city to develop as a testing ground for driverless cars”.

There are no more details about this prize fund, such as where the money is going to come from, or what the prize criteria will be, or what specifically the government is aiming to encourage towns and cities to do to prepare for driverlessness. Nor is there any timeframe placed on awarding the prize. Even Bezos had the sense to bookend his parenthetical aspirations for drone delivery (aka Prime Air) with a minimum wait for the tech to be (legally and regulatory) viable of “four to five years”.  *Minimum*

So, yeah, don’t hold your breath for Milton Keynes to start leveraging all its roundabouts for driverless joyrides quite yet . Although, what a thought…

(NB: A trial of driverless pod cars has previously been announced for Milton Keynes, with £1.5 million kicked in from government to fuel it — with 20 self-driving pods, bookable via a smartphone app, due to be up and running on designated pathways in the city by 2015.)

Here’s what the NIP document has to say in full:

Looking forward, driverless cars are innovative technology that will change the way the world’s towns and cities look and the way people travel; they present opportunities for the British automotive industry in the manufacture of the cars and the wider science and engineering sectors in the design of towns. To ensure that UK industry and the wider public benefit from the development of driverless cars, the government announces in the National Infrastructure Plan that it will conduct a review, reporting at the end of 2014, to ensure that the legislative and regulatory framework demonstrates to the world’s car companies that the UK is the right place to develop and test driverless cars. It will also create a £10 million prize for a town or city to develop as a testing ground for driverless cars.

Update: A Treasury spokeswoman confirmed the legal and regulatory review is likely to report by next summer. She also confirmed the £10 million prize fund will be funded from the Department for Transport’s budget.

She said U.K. towns and cities will be expected to apply for the prize by submitting bids detailing how they would approach testing driverless cars. Full details of the prize be published “in due course” — albeit Milton Keynes may well already have a pod-powered head start.

[Image by sergeant killjoy via Flickr]