Google sees UK as prime market for self-driving cars due to ‘non-regulatory approach’
Mon 14 Dec 2015
Documents obtained under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act reveal that Google’s program for self-driving cars has taken an unusual interest in Britain in the past two years due to the country’s determination not to impede the progress of research with excessive regulation.
Documents released to The Telegraph, though heavily redacted, nonetheless reveal interesting aspects from five meetings in the UK and California between the internet giant and the British Government over the course of two years. The meetings are said to have resulted in Google describing the UK as ‘a leader in developing laws for driverless cars’.
The meeting excerpts suggest that Google considers the UK as a primary early market for self-driving vehicles (SDVs). One of the FOI documents mentions a meeting between Sarah Hunter, the head of Google’s experimental division Google X, during which Ms Hunter commented that Google was ‘very positive about the non-regulatory approach being taken in the UK [which] places the UK in a good position and could be seen as an example of best practice’. In the same month the UK’s Department of Transport released The Pathway to Driverless Cars: A Code of Practice for testing, setting out a number of initial guidelines for autonomous vehicle development, including the unusual stipulation that vehicles under machine operation should appear to be being normally driven, so as not to distract other drivers into potentially causing accidents.
Other attendees at the disclosed meetings included Jennifer Haroon, a Principal in the Access Strategy & Operations team at Google and Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s Driverless Car Program. UK attendees included representatives from various departments including Treasury and UK Trade & Investment, with some of the names undisclosed. The redactions have apparently been made to protect Google’s commercial interests.
One particular interest that Google has taken regarding SDVs in the UK is the issue of insurance, with Sarah Hunter noting ‘the development of innovative insurance models as an area for UK leadership and a question Google are interested in.’ The Department For Transport said at the meeting that it would refer Google to the Bank of England, ‘who are doing modelling activity on [the] insurance sector and want to speak to Google’.
Though the advent of self-driving cars is thought by many in the financial and insurance industries to present the possibilities of lower insurance premiums due to the highly self-regulated nature of the vehicles’ behaviour on the roads, most believe that liability will be pressured increasingly onto vehicle manufacturers.
A spokesman for the DfT said “Driverless cars will bring great benefits to our society, the economy and road safety and we are investing millions into research and trials for the motoring of the future,” and continued “The UK is in a unique position to lead the way for the testing of connected and autonomous vehicles. We are making sure our laws are in step with this fast evolving technology and are working with industry to keep the UK at the forefront of its development.”
US regulators have been perceived as a potential bottleneck for Google’s plans to develop self-driving vehicles, with the DMV having dragged its heels all year about producing a framework of laws that Google would need to observe in SDV development.
In November U.S. tech giant Intel addressed the analogous situation between drone development and commercialisation and the more chary attitude of North American regulating bodies, warning that excessive Stateside regulation might cause further development work to head overseas. Google’s other future-reaching development effort, the drone trial Project Wing, has already conducted years of testing in Australia rather than the United States, due to that country’s less repressive regulations on drone use.