The West Midlands finds itself on the precipice of what many consider to be a driverless cars revolution.
In April of this year, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond joined Mayor Andy Street on a trip to the Black Country.
The two were visiting a small, unassuming car manufacturer called Westfield, based out of Kingswinford in Dudley.
However, despite its appearance, Westfield is a company at the forefront of one of the most exciting developments in transport in the past 50 years.
Taking the reins
Westfield is taking the reigns when it comes to driverless technology.
One of only two producers of driverless 'pods' in the UK, it currently supplies more autonomous vehicles than any other company in the UK, and is conducting trials in places all over the world, such as Leeds, the Lake District and South Korea.
And, what's more, the company is ready to introduce the technology into the heart of the West Midlands.
"We have a driverless pod, which in essence has no steering wheel, no handbrake, no controls inside the vehicle," explains Julian Turner, the company's CEO.
"And it’s very much designed to take you from different points in a structured way that is dedicated to be the most efficient, using a range of sensors to detect people, vehicles, pushchairs, children - everything you’d expect to come across on a road.
"This can be rolled out in certain controlled environments today. You could certainly look to roll this out on park and ride, shopping centres, business parks, airports, places where there are controlled environments.
"And I think that’s the key to doing this. I think that’s certainly within five years. I think within ten years everyone will have access to one of these vehicles in some shape or form."
The driverless cars boom
In recent months, the driverless cars industry in the West Midlands has come on leaps and bounds.
Back in June, it was announced that 50 miles of roads across Coventry, Birmingham and Solihull will be transformed into the largest driverless cars test-bed in the country, while the technology has already been tested in certain areas in Coventry.
And Julian believes that, because of recent developments, the West Midlands can legitimately claim to be the national leader in the industry.
"I already see the West Midlands as leading the field, to be honest," he says.
"There’s only two pod manufacturers in the UK, and they’re both in the West Midlands.
"And it isn’t just ‘let’s buy a vehicle’. There are lots of services associated with it.
"So we’re developing software to be able to interact with people that are visually impaired, support people who are physically impaired, particularly in rural areas, as well as helping with social inclusion.
"We're also doing things such as object recognition inside vehicles, for security at airports and things like that.
"So I see that the West Midlands will be leading this, not just in terms of vehicles but also the tech that’s associated with it.
"Because I think we’re leading the way and especially pushing the boundaries with these vehicles already. "
One of the biggest concerns among driverless car sceptics is that of safety.
Earlier this year, the news was awash with stories of malfunctioning driverless cars. Indeed, two people were killed in the United States in the space of just two months.
Julian says that, while he understands concerns, driverless cars are actually some of the safest vehicles on the roads.
He points out that, according to some studies, 90 per cent of road accidents are caused by human error, a factor which has been removed from his company's driverless pods.
And, in addition to this, he says that the company are sticklers when it comes to safety.
"I don’t think anybody’s done as much safety testing on it as we have in the Midlands," he says.
"We operate a safe up approach. So we’re doing low-speed trials of the vehicle, testing it in adverse weather conditions, as well as testing it in different environments.
"So rather than just testing it on a private road every day, we’re testing it in completely different environments around the UK so that we can get really valuable data.
"It’s obviously a big press event when you see that an autonomous vehicle has had an accident.
"But actually we lose the picture of ‘did you know today, around the world, 13,000 people have died in human driven vehicles’.
"So I think that, yeah, the UK’s done a lot of work on where’s the best place to put it, how do people feel about it, if you were driving next to a vehicle is there going to be autonomous vehicle bullying, where you could of course keep pulling out on a driverless car knowing that it’s going to stop.
"There’s no easy answer I’ve got to be honest with you. You can’t sit there and there’s a formula and it works and we can do it today, otherwise we’d have done it today.
"But the idea behind the projects we’re working on, especially in the UK, and the funding the government’s been providing is to look at what’s the best thing to do, what’s got to be done and what’s needed to make sure it’s a success."
Safety may be one thing, but what about employment? Though the driverless cars revolution certainly has the potential to put professions such as taxi drivers out of work, Julian says that in the long term driverless cars will be a good thing for the UK economy.
"So more jobs are going to be created by these, very simply because we currently import a heck of a lot of vehicles from abroad," says Julian.
"So now if we start manufacturing driverless cars in the UK, and then building them, servicing them, operating them and maintaining them in the UK, we’re going to be creating a lot of jobs.
"Our vehicles are 100 per cent British. 76 per cent comes from within the Midlands, which I think is a great success story. And I think long may that continue.
"But there are going to be more jobs created than there are lost in this area. Yes there may be some reskilling required, or a lot of reskilling required, but actually this is going to be a very different industry that’s all going to be supplied ideally from the UK, using UK technology.
"So somebody that might be a driver today will have to be reskilled in building, servicing, maintaining or even just operating these vehicles, from an operational centre.
"And, again, it’s not just about the vehicles, it’s about all technology associated. So in the infotainment inside, whether you’ve got a TV, whether you’ve got information, that’s all software that’s going to be made in the UK.
One of the first rollouts of Westfield's driverless pods is expected to be in controlled environment areas, such as Birmingham airport or the city centre.
However, long term, Julian hopes that the technology will be able to achieve far more than simply transporting somebody from passport control to their terminal.
"Work is still continuing today to look at what is the most successful way of implementing these vehicles into a public transport system," he says.
"We’re not looking at replacing public transport today. That’s not the objective. The objective we have is to connect up some of those public transport hubs, where for example the system doesn’t work.
"A prime example of that is where we're based, in Kingswinford. If I want to get on a train, in essence I’ve got to drive 20 minutes to the train station to leave my car, to wait for a train, to get into the centre of Birmingham.
"It actually makes more sense sometimes just to jump in a car and drive into Birmingham.
"Now what would be good is potentially having a pod system in place that connects here to either Stourbridge station or Sandwell and Dudley, so that I don’t have to drive in there, park there, drive back.
"I think that’s where it needs to be used initially.
"The idea behind this obviously is an on-demand system, so it’s only needed when you need it, and the rest of the time it’s being utilised for other people’s use.
"Rather than cars today, which you use for an hour, say, and then they’re sat degrading and losing money on the forecourt or on your drive.
"And I think that can certainly help reduce congestion, improve air quality, and give us all a lot more social benefits."
When can we expect them?
Mayor Andy Street has been one of the most vocal advocates of driverless technology in the West Midlands, previously speaking of the possibility of linking different stations in Birmingham with each other using the pods.
The combined authority even included one of Westfield's pods in its new rebranding of Transport for West Midlands, outlining what one might look like if it were to be used in the region.
And Julian has revealed that, while there is no set date by which we can expect to see his pods on our roads, the mayor wants them to be in operation by the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
"Andy Street has been a fantastic leader for the region, and will continue to be so," said Julian.
"And he has said that he would love to see autonomous vehicles operating in the Commonwealth Games.
"So he’s given us a vision, he’s given us the target, we’ve got to get on and deliver that, and that’s what we plan to do."