The UK sets its sights on a top spot in transport tech

Brid-Aine Parnell

Friday 10 June 2016

The Queen introduces the Modern Transport Bill, outlining visions for a futuristic Britain featuring driverless cars, drones and commercial spaceflight.

In a speech delivered at the opening of Parliament in May, the Queen said that the UK would be “at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport”.

This includes the Modern Transport Bill, a piece of legislation that will help cut the red tape around getting driverless cars on the road, including changing the law to require insurance companies to cover autonomous vehicles.

Transport tech is big business

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that although autonomous vehicles and commercial spaceflight might seem like the stuff of science fiction, these were growth areas with opportunities for the UK.

“The economic potential of these new technologies is vast. And we are determined that Britain will benefit by helping to lead their development. Driverless cars will come under new legislation so they can be insured under ordinary policies.

“These new laws will help autonomous and driverless cars become a real option for private buyers and fleets,” he said, adding that the UK is also developing a charging infrastructure for electric and hybrid vehicles.

Some experts project that the intelligent mobility sector, currently growing at around 16 per cent a year, could be worth up to £900 billion globally by 2025, McLoughlin pointed out.

A legal gap in the market

The same bill will also help to clear up the legislation around commercial and private drones. Although the regulations in Britain are not as restrictive as the US, there are still issues around airspace and privacy. It needs to be clear which agency should regulate drones to stop any interference with aircraft and to protect people from unwanted surveillance.

If the UK can get these issues sorted out ahead of the US, there is an opportunity to take a dominant position in an industry estimated to be worth £51 billion by 2025.

The idea of a commercial spaceport in Britain is not a new one and sites from Newquay airport in Cornwall, Llanbedr airport in Snowdonia and six Scottish possibilities have been discussed.

The UK government has already started investing in the space sector and it aims to raise revenues in the industry from £9 billion to £40 billion by 2030.

That leap would represent 10 per cent of the global space industry, but it won’t be easy. A host of other countries are also talking about building spaceports, including the United Arab Emirates, Australia and Sweden.

Autonomous opportunity

However, the UK has a strong foot forward already in the driverless car industry. Britain never ratified the Vienna Convention, which requires vehicles to be in control of their drivers at all times. So although new legislation is needed, it’s not at the level of complexity that many other countries face.

The UK has been able to run trials of autonomous vehicles in Milton Keynes, London, Bristol and Coventry and is investing millions into developing the sector. And car-makers are already taking notice. Volvo plans to extend its driverless car programme, currently only available in its home nation of Sweden, to London within two years.

With the right moves now, technologically advanced transport could be another global industry where the UK punches above its weight.

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