British motorists could be sharing roads with self-driving cars later this year, according to the Department for Transport.
Under new plans unveiled by the government, cars and vehicles fitted with Automated Lane Keeping System (Alks) could be legally defined as ‘self-driving’ and given the green light for use on UK motorways.
Designed for use on a motorway in slow traffic, Alks enables a vehicle to drive itself in a single lane while ensuring the driver can safely re-assume control if required.
The announcement coincides with the launch of a consultation on The Highway Code rules which aims to ensure the Alks technology is used safely.
Vehicles using Alks tech will be allowed on British roads as long as they receive GB type approval and if there is no evidence to challenge a vehicle’s ability to self-drive.
Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said the announcement is a major step toward the popular use of self-driving vehicles in the UK.
However, she warned that any future success rests on whether safety can be assured.
“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,” Maclean commented.
“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.”
Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits
Long-term, the government said the deployment of self-driving vehicles has a number of positive environmental, social and economic benefits.
The technology could improve road safety by eliminating a certain degree of human error, which contributes to 85% of accidents.
Industry analysis from SMMT suggests that automated driving systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save nearly 4,000 lives on British roads over the next decade.
Similarly, it is predicted that the increased uptake of self-driving vehicles could improve access to transport for people with mobility issues, reduce congestion in urban settings and “level-up” access to transport in historically disconnected or rural areas.
Over the next 15 years, connected and autonomous vehicle tech could generate around 38,000 new jobs in the UK, with the industry growing into a £42 billion behemoth.
Over 80% of these jobs are predicted to be in professional, technical and skilled trade occupations, the government said.
Mikes Hawes, Chief Executive of the SMMT said the move has the potential to place Britain “in the vanguard” of road safety and automotive technology.
“Technologies such as Automated Lane Keeping Systems will pave the way for higher levels of automation in future – and these advances will unleash Britain’s potential to be a world leader in the development and use of these technologies, creating essential jobs while ensuring our roads remain among the safest on the planet,” he said.
Insurers Urge Caution
In contrast to the excitement surrounding government plans, insurers have raised concerns and urged caution.
In a joint statement released today, Thatcham Research and the Association of British Insurers warned “there is still a lot of work” required before any vehicle can be classed as automated and safely used on British roads.
Matthew Avery, Director of Research at Thatcham said the use of ‘self-driving’ terminology could put motorists at risk.
“Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) as currently proposed by the Government are not automated. They are assisted driving systems as they rely on the driver to take back control,” he 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,” Avery added.
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Automated vehicle technologies have been the subject of controversy in recent years. In 2018, a Tesla driver in the US died while using the vehicle’s auto pilot features.
An investigation conducted by the US National Transportation Safety Board found the driver was playing video games at the time of the crash.
The deaths of two men in a Tesla crash earlier this month is also being investigated in the US. It is believed that neither of the passengers were in the passenger seat at the time of the accident.
Mark Shepherd, Head of General Insurance Policy, Association of British Insurers, said the distinction between automated and assisted driving technologies must be clear-cut to minimise risks.
“It is vital that Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS), which rely on the driver to take back control, are not classed as automated, but as assisted systems,” he said.
“By keeping this distinction clear we can help ensure that the rules around ALKS are appropriate and put driver and passenger safety first.”