U.K. to Spur First Spaceport, Drones, Driverless Vehicles

  • Congestion costs British economy $29 billion per year
  • Separate bill to spur construction of high-speed rail line

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron plans a new transport law to spur everything from the country’s first spaceport to the production of drones, driverless cars and electric vehicles.

The Modern Transport Bill would pave the way for commercial space flights from the U.K. by setting a framework for a new spaceport, the government said Wednesday in a briefing note to accompany Queen Elizabeth II’s speech in Parliament laying out Cameron’s program. Other measures seek to ensure insurance is available for driverless cars and to encourage investment in the development of drones.

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The measures aim to reduce congestion that costs the British economy 20 billion pounds ($29 billion) a year, while boosting the country’s satellite industry and vehicle exports. Trials of driverless cars are already under way in Bristol, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Greenwich, southeast London, with plans for vehicles -- both pods and cars -- to drive themselves later this year.

“Modern transportation can make much much more efficient use of our roads, railways and airspace, cutting congestion, speeding up journeys for people and goods and boosting our world-leading satellite industry,” the government said. The law “will put the U.K. at the forefront of safe technology in the autonomous vehicles industry, such as drones and space planes.”

Enabling insurance for driverless cars will be key to scaling up the technology, said Nissan Motor Co. in a statement. Its self-driving Qashqai model, built with ProPilot, will be made in Sunderland in the U.K. from next year.

“Autonomously-equipped vehicles will improve the safety and well-being of drivers, with fewer collisions and reduced traffic congestion,” said Paul Wilcox, chairman of Nissan Europe. “The U.K. economy can also benefit, by playing a pivotal role in a global industry estimated to be worth 900 billion pounds by 2025.”

Going Electric

The U.K.’s plug-in-car grant, which offers a discount of as much as 5,000 pounds ($7,300) to electric vehicles, helped generate 60,755 sales of battery-powered cars since it was launched five years ago, according to the briefing note.

Along with similar incentives in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Norway, the plug-in-car grant helped make Europe the biggest EV market in the world, with its 2015 sales exceeding those in China and the U.S. put together, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“The government is right to stress that the U.K. should be at the forefront of electric vehicles,” said Nick Molho, chief executive officer of Aldersgate Group, in an e-mailed statement. “The continued rollout of a comprehensive network of electric charging points will also be essential.”

Drone Prospects

The government cited research predicting the global drone industry will surge to $123 billion in the next decade from about $4 billion currently. 

Current drone legislation is “chaotic and confusing,” said Alistair Carmichael, home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, in a statement. “This bill must end the alphabet soup of agencies that have partial control of this area. Our safety cannot be put at risk because ministers don’t want to step on each other’s toes.”

The bill will also contain a provision to update the Air Travel Organizer’s License, or ATOL, the U.K.’s financial-protection program for holidays, by clarifying a 1992 law that pre-dates customers booking their holidays online, according to the document.

A separate law will give the government the legal powers it needs to construct and operate the first phase of its second high speed rail line, known as HS2. The bill would give the government planning permission to construct the line between London and the West Midlands.

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