Smart Transport

'Self-driving' vehicles to be allowed on UK roads this year

'Self-driving' vehicles could be allowed on UK roads by the end of the year, the Government has announced.

Following a call for evidence, the Government has set out how vehicles fitted with automated lane keeping system (ALKS) technology could legally be defined as 'self-driving', as long as they receive GB type approval and that there is no evidence to challenge the vehicle’s ability to self-drive.

The Government said ALKS is an example of 'self-driving' technology and will be limited to speeds of up to 37mph on motorways. The technology enables a vehicle to drive itself in a single lane, while maintaining the ability to return control to the driver when required.

Several vehicles are equipped with adaptive cruise control and lane keeping systems that allow them to technically drive themselves in certain situations, but current legislation states that the driver must remain in control at all times.

If the new laws are approved, drivers would no longer have to keep their hands on the wheel while the system was active.

Transport minister Rachel Maclean said: “This is a major step for the safe use of 'self-driving' vehicles in the UK, making future journeys greener, easier and more reliable while also helping the nation to build back better.

“But we must ensure that this exciting new tech is deployed safely, which is why we are consulting on what the rules to enable this should look like. In doing so, we can improve transport for all, securing the UK’s place as a global science superpower.”

A new consultation has been launched today (April 28) to define how the system may be used.

According to government, the technology could help improve road safety by reducing human error, which contributes to over 85% of accidents. The driver will be able to hand control over to the vehicle, which will constantly monitor speed and keep a safe distance from other cars.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) chief executive, Mike Hawes, said the automotive industry welcomed the technology.

"The automotive industry welcomes this vital step to permit the use of automated vehicles on UK roads, which will put Britain in the vanguard of road safety and automotive technolog," he said. 

"Automated driving systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade through their ability to reduce the single largest cause of road accidents – human error."

Safety concerns with 'self-driving' vehicles

However, Thatcham Research and The AA have highlighted safety concerns with automated vehicles.

Edmund King, AA president, said: “Automated lane keeping systems should be classified as ‘Assisted Driving’ technology and is a world away from ‘self-driving’.

“Without doubt vehicle safety technology can save lives, but we shouldn’t be in race to take drivers’ hands off the wheel.

“There are still gaps in how this technology detects and stops if the vehicle is involved in a collision. There are still question marks over how drivers will be fully informed how these systems work. More needs to be done to rigorously test these systems before they are used on UK roads.”

Two men recently died after the Tesla they were travelling in hit a tree and caught fire in Texas. Police believe no one was driving the vehicle at the time of the impact.

Tesla has faced criticism for the way it markets its assistance systems as ‘self-driving’, and in 2020, a German court banned Tesla from making claims that its cars have 'self-driving' technology.

Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research, said: “Aside from the lack of technical capabilities, by calling ALKS automated our concern also is that the UK Government is contributing to the confusion and frequent misuse of assisted driving systems that have unfortunately already led to many tragic deaths.

“A widespread and effective ongoing communications campaign led by the automotive industry and supported by insurers and safety organisations is essential if we are going to address current and future misconceptions and misuse.”

Researchers are calling for an 'urgent investigation' into the technology that allows 'self-driving' cars to communicate with operators.

Recommendations for autonomous vehicle (AV) laws are set to be published by the Law Commission before the end of the year.

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