We have had a lot of doom and gloom this year. London-based banks worrying us with talk of moving to Frankfurt, uncertainty on migration to and from the continent; for a while, it seemed as though Britain’s economic prospects post-Brexit were rather unattractive. Philip Hammond’s announcement about self-driving cars has certainly been a welcome change!
The Scramble for Automation
The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced the government’s plan to have self-driving cars on British roads by 2021. With that giving us only 3 years and 42 days, the plan might seem a little ambitious. Considering how the autonomous car industry may be worth £28 billion pounds to UK economy (according to UK government estimates), however, one can certainly understand the ambition.
It’s even more understandable when one considers the global scrambling for autonomous vehicles. Multiple countries, such as the United States, Germany, and Japan, are already trialing the new tech. Moreover, governments have been hurrying to pass legislation to attract manufacturers.
If Britain wants to “lead the next industrial revolution”, as Chancellor Hammond has stated, then the deadline is absolutely necessary – but self-driving cars are just the tip of the tech iceberg.
Britain as the ‘Silicon Island’?
For years, the Britain has been dependent upon the service sector, which (according to the latest government report) accounts for around 79% of the overall UK economy last year.
But the economy is changing rapidly – tech companies are becoming increasingly dominant in the global market, and Britain’s reliance on the service and banking sector may hold them back from new and exciting developments.
This is why 2021-plan for self-driving cars is so promising. In opening its doors to new tech, Britain is preventing itself from lagging behind the rest of the world post-Brexit.
Budget plans from the UK government are set to dedicate millions of pounds to electronic car charging ports, 5G networks, computer science education and AI development suggests that the state is on board with this brave new future for Great Britain.
But how far can state money go?
The New Industrial Revolution
In the past, the most significant roadblock for innovation and new technologies in the UK haven’t stemmed from a lack of money – they’ve come from the state.
Just a couple of months ago, gig-economy frontrunner Uber was denied a license renewal in the British capital, London, after the authority on transport in the city became concerned with consumer safety. Despite servicing around 3.5 millions residents of the city (just under 50% of the overall London population), the popular service is now having to undergo a lengthy appeals case to renew its license.
This is the kind of behaviour that Britain has to avoid if it wants to truly participate in this new industrial revolution. State spending on new infrastructure won’t be enough if the tech it’s servicing is denied entry.
Britain needs to work on breaking down existing barriers and deterrents that have put companies off in the past. TfL’s refusal to renew Uber’s license only one example – the national government also has a few lessons to learn.
Data protection and online surveillance are the elephants in the room here – Prime Minister Theresa May’s Draft Communications Data Bill (dubbed the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ by critics) was no selling point to big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Apple when it passed last year, since the bill required such companies to submit to numerous encryption and data sharing requirements if they wanted to continue operating in the UK.
Fortunately, the government seems to be learning its lesson; adjustments made to the bill earlier this year gave back some control to consumers and eased up the grips of tech companies in the UK.
To stand out from the rest of the world, however, Britain needs to do a lot more than make a few adjustments to bad regulations. Scrapping the bill in its entirety, and limiting regulation and taxation on tech companies would be a far more effective approach.
With Brexit on the table, there has never been a better time for Britain to start attracting tech companies. The European Union appears to be following a similar route to the British snooper’s charter, with controversial bills such as the currently-debated directive on copyright infringement threatening to seriously deter tech companies from flocking to the continent.
As such, Britain’s exit from the union gives the island nation the opportunity to become the European tech capital. All of this hinges on the UK government’s next steps, however; Plans for self-driving cars are a good start, but much more deregulation is going to have to occur if Britain’s going to become the Silicon Island.