UK Could Allow Self-Driving Cars On Motorways In 2021

The British government is considering proposals that could allow the use of self-driving cars in the slow lane of UK motorways by next year.

This is despite concerns about the safety of self-driving systems, that has resulted in a number of accidents and deaths over the years.

However the government decision to look at the proposals has been welcomed by the industry, as more and more vehicles in the UK are equipped with self-driving systems and driving aids.

Government consultation

The possibility that hands-free driving could be allowed on British motorways by Spring 2021 came after the Department for Transport (DfT) issued a call for evidence into automated lane keeping systems (ALKS).

These systems effectively keep the vehicle within a particular lane of traffic and can adjust speed to suit the traffic, however the driver needs to alert to take back control.

“The government is seeking views from industry on the role of the driver and proposed rules on the use of this system to pave the way towards introducing it safely in Great Britain, within the current legal framework,” the government stated.

“The call for evidence will ask whether vehicles using this technology should be legally defined as an automated vehicle, which would mean the technology provider would be responsible for the safety of the vehicle when the system is engaged, rather than the driver,” it added.

Essentially, the government is seeking views on its proposals to allow the safe use of this system on British roads at speeds of up to 70mph.

“Automated technology could make driving safer, smoother and easier for motorists and the UK should be the first country to see these benefits, attracting manufacturers to develop and test new technologies,” explained Transport Minister Rachel Maclean.

“The UK’s work in this area is world leading and the results from this call for evidence could be a significant step forward for this exciting technology,” said Maclean.

Industry reaction

And the consultation has been welcomed by motoring organisations.

“Over the last 50 years, leading edge in-car technology from seat belts to airbags and ABS has helped to save thousands of lives,” said Edmund King, AA president. “The government is right to be consulting on the latest collision-avoidance system which has the potential to make our roads even safer in the future.”

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has said that this technology could cut accidents.

“Automated technologies for vehicles, of which automated lane keeping is the latest, will be life-changing, making our journeys safer and smoother than ever before and helping prevent some 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade,” said Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive.

“This advanced technology is ready for roll out in new models from as early as 2021, so today’s announcement is a welcome step in preparing the UK for its use, so we can be among the first to grasp the benefits of this road safety revolution,” said Hawes.

Autonomous driving

The real question (other than legal responsibility) remains whether this technology is mature and robust enough to be entrusted with people’s lives, and whether it is a good idea on the UK’s crowded road network.

In July Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a very bold prediction about the future of autonomous driving technology, when he said that Tesla is “very close” to achieving level 5 autonomous driving technology.

For those that don’t know, level 5 is the holy grail of autonomous driving technology, as level 5 vehicles will not require human intervention, and the need for a human drivers is eliminated.

Indeed, it is said that level 5 cars won’t even have steering wheels or acceleration/braking pedals.

These cars will be free from geofencing, and will be able to drive anywhere, and do anything that normal car with a human driver can do.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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