The long-standing challenge to describing charged particle dynamics in strong classical electromagnetic fields is how to incorporate classical radiation, classical radiation reaction and quantized photon emission into a consistent unified framework. The current, semiclassical methods to describe the dynamics of quantum particles in strong classical fields also provide the theoretical framework for fundamental questions in gravity and hadron–hadron collisions, including Hawking radiation, cosmological particle production and thermalization of particles created in heavy-ion collisions. However, as we show, these methods break down for highly relativistic particles propagating in strong fields. They must therefore be improved and adapted for the description of laser–plasma experiments that typically involve the acceleration of electrons. Theory developed from quantum electrodynamics, together with dedicated experimental efforts, offer the best controllable context to establish a robust, experimentally validated foundation for the fundamental theory of quantum effects in strong classical potentials.