Government moves towards self-driving cars in UK

  • Consultation from August to October marks first steps
  • Motorways only, but ‘hands-off’ control
  • Issues include insurance liability and emergency procedures

Autonomous driving

Whether you’re eagerly anticipating the dream of a self-driving car, or consider it another layer of technology that’s going to interfere with driving, technology moves on and the world has to adapt to autonomous driving systems. Britain would, originally, have been covered by the European Union’s legislation, but now has to make its own provisions in law to keep up.

The first stages were laid out in 2018, in the Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Act; the next stage is consultation to clarify key issues around allowing the car to be controlled by computer without intervention for long periods.

Focusing on the controlled environment of motorways – where there should be no exposure to oncoming traffic, pedestrians or animals – the Autonomous Lane Keeping System (ALKS) definition nevertheless is a form of self-driving mode that for many motorists could reduce the stress and enhance the safety of the least enjoyable stage of commuting – constant speed, constant direction and frequent congestion without the need to consider junctions or pedestrians.

What will the legislation allow

We would say ‘if’ passed, but one way or another, this is going to happen. The systems are already in place in many premium cars, and the rest of Europe is pressing ahead (despite EU membership having often been held up as a barrier to these systems). Once in place, you will be able to legally switch on the ALKS system on the motorway and the car will proceed along the desired route at up to 70mph, reacting to traffic, speed limits, restrictions and weather conditions as the technology allows.

If the ALKS technology isn’t up to the prevailing conditions, or suffers a fault, it will require the driver to take over, but as long as it’s all working you will be legally able to read, relax, listen to podcasts, make phonecalls and otherwise act as a passenger – albeit a passenger who is required to be ready to take control of the car at any time.

There’s a clue as to the scale of the task ahead, though, in that Highway Code, Motorway Regulations and Road Traffic Act legislation will all need to change – in essence, to consider the ALKS computers the ‘driver’ of the car from a legal and responsibility standpoint.

Insurance is already on board, as the 2018 act ensured occupants of the car would be covered if the systems fail. Part of the ALKS specification includes a black-box recorder that monitors the performance of the autonomous systems, including transition when handing control back to the driver.

What if it goes wrong?

Driverless car systems

As you’ve probably seen on videos of these systems in America, not a lot. The car will, if the driver doesn’t take over, simply slow down gradually in the lane it’s in with the hazard lights on.

If nothing else, this is a strong argument for changing how motorway lanes are used in the UK; at the moment the speed disparity between cars and HGVs, the need to return to the inside lane, and the habit that the outside lane is the ‘fast’ lane really won’t hold if an autonomous car can do 70mph, but will stop in the outside lane if there’s a fault and the driver doesn’t intervene. Of all the issues with ALKS, this is the one that’s most likely to have an impact on other road users.

How will this change motoring in the UK?

Removing the human element from driving is great if you don’t enjoy driving – and it’s great even if you do, because you’re surrounded by people who don’t. Computers designed for autonomous driving aren’t thinking about work, kids, relationships, life – they’ve had enough sleep, they haven’t forgotten their glasses, and they’re absolutely not angry that the person who is distracted by all those things just pulled out in front of them.

In short, all the stuff that’s unpleasant about driving in Britain could be eradicated with the press of a switch on the steering wheel. And if you want to drive, just take over. Nothing in the legislation makes the use of these systems mandatory – it’s not like the bad experiences some have had with autonomous emergency braking, where the safety system interrupts your driving; in fact, you’ll be able to interrupt the car’s driving.

But it only applies to motorways at the moment. This is still an early step on the road to driverless cars, and it’ll be reserved for the most expensive, sophisticated models on the road – these cars will be outnumbered by second-hand, conventional cars with human pilots for a very long time. If anything, that makes the challenges ahead for ALKS much harder than if all cars had the system with car-to-X communication, as they cannot co-ordinate.

When cars can talk to other cars about their routes, speed, intention and condition, self-driving cars will become vastly more capable. Of course, the world may have changed dramatically before then…

What this means for you

The main question is: how do you feel about hands-free driving taking place on the roads around you? The Government consultation runs until 27 October 2020 – if you have expert insight or just a viewpoint to get across, join in and take part with this online questionnaire. Either way, the department wants to hear from you.

All views are valid, and can shape the legislation, rules around the use of ALKS and the way it’s implemented as well. Don’t forget to let us know if you’re looking forward to self-driving cars, or don’t want to give up the wheel.

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Further reading

>> The state of automation driverless cars and personal mobility