Middleton and Belle Isle to become guinea pigs for driverless cars scheme

UPDATED at 12:00pm: Please check the date on this article …

We hope you enjoyed our April Fool story. Drive safely now.

Middleton and Belle Isle look set to become the testing ground for an experiment in driverless cars starting later this year, as disclosed by meeting notes released by Leeds City Council last week.

A sub-committee of the Leeds Innovation and Enterprise Services hub last December signed off an application from global tech firm Skynet to carry out a live year-long research project featuring driverless cars around the Middleton Park council ward (which includes Belle Isle) starting from November 2019.

According to the minutes of the meeting, the area was chosen because of the wide roads, the relatively low incidence rate of accidents and congestion – and most curiously, the so-called “co-efficiency” of local drivers. Via a sub-contracted company HAL Ltd, Skynet monitored and scored the average driving standards of people in over 400 UK communities between 2017-2018. Middleton and Belle Isle came out with an impressive 78% score, one of the highest in any urban setting in the country.

The programme will initially see four driverless cars, each with a dummy ‘driver’ behind the wheel (apparently to reduce public awareness and concerns about the scheme), undertaking short journeys around the community; data collected from these will be used by Skynet to shape and improve their software. All being well, it is proposed that local residents will then after 6 months be able to book short journeys around the community, for free – like any taxi firm. The project contract is due to conclude in November 2020, although extensions or even expansion to include other communities are possible.

Skynet is the world’s leading firm in driverless or autonomous vehicles, although are only just venturing into the UK market. They are not uncontroversial, with major shareholders including the Saudi royal family, the Myanmar government, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment company SCM, and the Trump Organisation. Campaigners have repeatedly accused them of corruption and dirty tricks. And as disclosed in a recent New York Times investigation, they also have a close but undefined relationship with Cambridge Analytica – the political consultancy firm criticised for inappropriate behaviour during the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

We approached the Skynet press department for comment – and got a response within one minute. Because, unbelievably, it is run by an automated ‘Artificial Intelligence’ system. Their response in full was:

“We look forward to conducting this exciting experiment on the people of south central Leeds later this year. We analysed other south districts including Beeston, but I regret to say the conditions were not correct, and the co-efficiency of human drivers there scored as ‘terrible’ (14%). But we were impressed by the human drivers of south central Leeds: well done. And the roads are well-proportioned for our trial: double good. Thank you also to the municipal government for their assistance. Our algorithms confirm that this will be a success, and you have nowt to fear.”

But following the announcement, local resistance is already starting to emerge. Local mum and campaigner Sarah Connor told us:

“First it was self-service tills at the supermarkets, and now this. We all know where this ends. We need to get organised, and get this terrible project terminated before it starts. Join me, save our community, and save the future – before it’s too late.”

For more info on driverless or autonomous cars, click here. For more info on Skynet, click here. At the time of publishing, it remains unclear how to best find out more about this particular scheme, or how to challenge it – but we will publish updates shortly, so watch this space.


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