Self-driving cars get green light for use on motorways later this year

28 April 2021, 00:02 | Updated: 28 April 2021, 19:17

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Self-driving cars that allow motorists to take their eyes off the road and hands off the steering wheel could be allowed on British motorways later this year.

Hands-free driving in vehicles with lane-keeping technology will be allowed on motorways where traffic is slow, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Wednesday.

The cars will be allowed to travel at speeds of up to 37mph, with motorways being chosen due to being "relatively straight roads" with "clear road markings", an expert suggested.

Vehicles with an Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) could be legally used by a driver who is not paying attention to the road, the DfT said.

However, the department added this was contingent on there being "no evidence to challenge the vehicle’s ability to self-drive".

ALKS technology, described by the DfT as "traffic jam chauffeur technology", enables drivers to relinquish control of their car to the system.

The self-driving vehicles could be used on slow-moving motorways
The self-driving vehicles could be used on slow-moving motorways. Picture: PA

But the new policy will require drivers to be free to resume driving when required.

The tech is designed to constantly monitor speeds reached and to keep safe distances from other road users, normally through the use of cameras and sensors.

If the system detects an "imminent collision risk", it will carry out an "emergency manoeuvre" which could involve braking or a change of direction.

The DfT claimed the technology could boost road safety as human error "contributes to over 85 per cent of accidents".

A consultation has been launched on updates to the Highway Code to ensure autonomous systems are used safely and responsibly.

File photo of self-driving car navigating its way through Coventry city centre in 2017
File photo of self-driving car navigating its way through Coventry city centre in 2017. Picture: PA

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."

Jim Holder, editorial director of magazine and website What Car?, said the new policy is a "sensible first step" towards autonomous driving.

"These are very, very controlled circumstances, low speed, relatively straight roads, clear road markings," he said.

"In theory, this should be a very effective way of using the technology to good effect."

Mr Holder said Britain is in a "global competition" to develop the technology, adding that the announcement "gets us back in the race" as the UK is "a bit behind" the US and China.

File photo showing a self-driving car in front of a London bus two years ago
File photo showing a self-driving car in front of a London bus two years ago. Picture: PA

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said humans are "invariably the weak link" when it comes to driving safely, but warned there are "challenges" when journeys involve transferring control from technology to the individual behind the wheel.

"There is a risk of situations in which drivers over-rely on the automated system, expecting it to deal with events for which it is neither intended nor capable," he said.

"And what happens when drivers are expected to take back control in an emergency? Research for us shows that it can take drivers several seconds to regain command of their vehicle."

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said: "Technologies such as Automated Lane Keeping Systems will pave the way for higher levels of automation in future.

"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."