Another country has given the green light to driverless cars. Autonomous automobiles could be on UK public roads as early as January 2015.
Driverless cars are cars equipped with GPS to guide them on their route, with cameras and sensors that make the vehicle aware of objects and other vehicles around it, allowing it to react to obstacles.
In California, driverless cars are already road-legal, led by Google's fleet of autonomous vehicles. Trials have been held in Japan, Singapore, Germany, and Sweden, where Volvo has a fleet of prototypes touring the streets.
Britain's Department for Transport has allowed self-driving cars on private roads, but not public roads until now. Today Business Secretary Vince Cable and Transport Minister Claire Perry announced trials in three cities in January and possible changes to the Highway Code that will allow self-driving cars on public streets.
The plan is to start with cars that can be driven by their occupants or switched to autonomous mode, as opposed to fully autonomous vehicles like the little Google cars that lack a steering wheel or pedals.
One of the things that has to be worked out before the public can take self-driving cars for a spin is the question of responsibility if something goes wrong. Is the owner of the car, or the manufacturer, or the other driver at fault in a crash? That's important, because it's certain to have an impact on how these cars are insured.
The UK Treasury has previously earmarked £10m to be awarded to a town or city to test driverless cars. Self-driving cars could also be developed alongside other autonomous and robotic vehicles at test sites proposed by the Technology Strategy Board.
Before we get too excited, the FBI has warned that autonomous cars could be more dangerous than existing cars, opening "more ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon than it is today".
"Today's announcement takes us closer to seeing fully autonomous vehicles on our roads but it will take some time for them to become commonplace," Edmund King, president of breakdown repair service the AA, told CNET. "Many drivers are still resistant to change as 65 per cent [of AA members] enjoy driving too much to ever want the vehicle to take over from them."
King highlights recent advances that see newer cars add automated systems to help park your car, keep a safe distance from the car in front and even brake automatically in emergencies. But he believes that drivers must make "a big leap of faith by drivers from embracing assistance systems to accepting the fully automated car."
"Advanced technology could enhance the mobility of an ageing population," King adds. "Technology is not a prison. We must embrace technology as ultimately it will make our cars safer."