Why the UK Government investment in Connected and Autonomous Vehicles isn’t as amazing as you might think

Today’s Autumn Statement by the British Chancellor, the man responsible for setting the budget for the UK, includes a commitment to invest £390 (about $500m) on future transport technologies.

Future transport – The NPIF will invest a further £390 million by 2020-21 to support ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs), renewable fuels, and connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). This includes £80 million for ULEV charging infrastructure, £150 million in support for low emission buses and taxis, £20 million for the development of alternative aviation and heavy goods vehicle fuels, and £100 million for new UK CAV testing infrastructure. In addition to the tax incentives for ULEVs in company tax and salary schemes set out in the tax chapter, from today to the end of March 2019 the government will also offer 100% first-year allowances to companies investing in charge-points for electric vehicles.

Let’s pull out the important section there:
“£100 million for new UK CAV testing infrastructure… by 2020-2021.”

So firstly, rather than being impressed by the scale and scope, let’s remember a few important pointers:

  1. This is taxpayers’ money, and taxpayers deserve to understand they are getting value for that money. This is important, because it’s true. We elect politicians and leaders to make wise investments in developing our future economy because most of us don’t know what that means. Our job is to hold them to account.
  2. It’s £100m over 5 years, or £20m per year… only a few pence per British taxpayer, so it’s not a huge amount of money. Again, a good thing.
  3. It’s being spent on testing infrastructure for both connected and autonomous vehicles. It’s really this that I have a problem with.

Far from thinking this is a windfall for start-ups and small businesses, where the most growth and innovation is, or attracting international organisations to the UK for the purposes of testing or collaboration, the lack of technical awareness within this statement is surprising, to say the least.

• The UK – while a leader when motorsport and mechanical engineering are concerned and also in terms of some policies for future CAV industries, in terms of originating autonomous road vehicles, is a long way behind. Building test facilities won’t help that.

• The existing zero cost policy of allowing testing ‘in public’ using public roads (a policy which we know is popular and works well) flies against the logic of this commitment to invest. Building test facilities won’t help that either.

• Most critically, the vast majority of testing for autonomous vehicles is virtualised through simulations and data modelling. Again… building test facilities won’t help that either.

So, this announcement is a victory for existing organisations running huge built test facilities who are terrified by the idea their existing facilities are no longer relevant, who will no doubt be the first in line to apply for and receive their hard-lobbied funding to build facilities that will be woefully obsolete before the foundations are even laid.  However, it’s a missed opportunity for the UK and a huge loss to the taxpayer – and the worst part is, the vast majority of them don’t even know it.

As a taxpayer, I’m annoyed by the lack of scope or awareness of this statement. However, I do retain a glimmer of hope that the people responsible for delivering work streams with whatever funding becomes available (many of whom I have met and respect) will do their utmost to ensure the ‘real world’ uses of this funding are better thought out that the very limited terms of the original statement.

Let’s wait and see…

Alex Lawrence-Berkeley