Driverless cars could take up to 20 years to become a common sight on British roads because of a lack of public acceptance of the technology, according to research.

A large-scale study suggested that Britain was less prepared for autonomous vehicles than many other European countries, casting doubt on government claims that the UK will become a global hub for self-driving cars.

A study suggests that Britain is less prepared for autonomous vehicles than many other European countries TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER JACK HILL


The study by PA Consulting estimated that the British love of driving, combined with natural scepticism over safety, meant that UK car owners were less likely than those on the continent to relinquish control of vehicles to computers within a decade.

Some experts said that public acceptance, including widespread purchase of self-driving vehicles, could take twice as long as that, possibly putting the brakes on their widespread adoption until the late 2030s.

The government has said that full autonomy is likely in the 2020s, with some estimates that drivers could completely relinquish control of vehicles within the next five years.

Ministers have courted the automotive and technology sectors as part of attempts to position the country at the forefront of driverless car development, which is estimated to be worth £63 billion to the global economy by 2035.

Hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in test centres and trials. These have included taxpayer-funded pilot schemes that are close to putting self-driving vehicles on the roads in Bristol, Coventry, Milton Keynes and Greenwich, southeast London.

PA Consulting interviewed more than 50 experts, including vehicle manufacturers, highways authorities, insurance companies, government officials, law firms and motoring groups.

The study assessed Britain’s preparedness for autonomous vehicles using seven criteria including technology, regulations and public acceptance. It concluded that driverless cars were “more than ten years away from regular use on UK roads”. In some other countries, such as the Nordic states, driverless cars may be six years away.

Some people thought that the British public would embrace autonomous cars if they were developed by a brand such as Apple. “Few people have had first-hand contact with driverless cars; a clue to why the panel felt it could take up to 20 years for them to be accepted,” the report states. “But others felt that could change quickly once more people saw the cars being used, or if an ‘Apple car’ appeared.”

Charlie Henderson, a transport expert at PA Consulting, said other countries such as Sweden and Denmark would take to driverless cars quicker, adding: “Some of [UK] road regulation is dated, the legislative process can be slow in comparison with other countries, and we have a large number of bodies involved in managing our roads.”

He added: “For many in Britain their vehicle is much more than just a means of transport. Autonomous vehicles will not have the ‘fun’ of driving; you will be driven rather than drive.”