The United Kingdom could be only a couple of years away from witnessing self-driving cars on public roads, according to a government minister.

Transport secretary Mark Harper made the prediction on Wednesday that self-driving cars will likely be on UK roads by 2026, when he was speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

It comes after the UK government in early November had announced plans for new legislation (Automated Vehicles legislation) to deliver autonomous driving in the UK. Under that legislation, the UK plans to make the manufacturers of self-driving cars (rather than the owners of self-driving cars) to be legally liable for any crashes.

Government and self-driving

The issue of self-driving cars has been on the government’s radar (ahem) for a very long time now.

The coalition government in 2014 for example opened a £150 million government-sponsored centre in Milton Keynes to develop driverless cars and improve the country’s transport networks across air, land and sea.

And in 2016 the government gave the green light to a trial of driverless HGV lorries on Britain’s roads.

Then in 2017 the government pledged £8.1 million in funding for trials of a convoy of HGV lorries synching their moves in order to slash fuel costs and congestion, as well as lower emissions when transporting goods on British roads.

Also in 2017 the government’s Department for Transport (DfT) announced that according to official computer modelling, driverless cars would cut delays and reduce journey times.

That came after a 2016 reported had claimed that the introduction of driverless cars to Britain’s roads would lead to a major drop in accidents and provide a huge boost to the nation’s economy.

In August 2020 the government said it was considering proposals that could allow the use of self-driving cars in the slow lane of UK motorways.

In April 2021 the government approved the use of self-driving cars on British motorways.

Driverless cars are a fairly common sight in Milton Keynes, as the British city has played host to other trials over the past decade, including driverless pods, as well as delivery robots that drive slowly on the pavement in order to deliver shopping to people’s homes, or a Costa Coffee to a person.

But the UK has lagged behind other countries, such as the United States which has seen San Francisco and parts of Phoenix play host to driverless robotaxis for a number of years now.

2026 arrival?

Now the UK transport secretary Mark Harper has told BBC Radio that he has personally seen the technology being used in California, and said he wants people to have “confidence” in a proper safety regime.

“The legislation is going through parliament at the moment, so hopefully we’ll get that through parliament by the end of 2024,” he reportedly said.

“Probably by as early as 2026 people will start seeing some elements of these cars that have full self-driving capabilities being rolled out,” he added.

Harper insisted autonomous driving will be rolled out “gradually” and would be up to individuals if they want to use it.

“It has a huge number of potential uses, the obvious one is 88 percent or so of road traffic collisions we see today are caused by driver error of some description,” he told the BBC.

“There is a real potential for this sort of technology to actually improve safety on the roads, not just for drivers, not just for passengers, but for other vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists – to really improve road safety, which is a real win for everybody,” he reportedly said.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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