Self-driving cars to be allowed on motorways — in slow traffic

Autonomous vehicles to hit the roads later this year in ‘major step’

Kate Ng
Wednesday 28 April 2021 01:44
Transport of the future? First collaborative trials of self-driving cars take place in UK

Self-driving cars will be permitted on motorways in Britain later this year, but only at speeds of up to 37mph.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced it will allow hands-free driving in vehicles with an automated lane-keeping system (ALKS) on motorways with slow traffic.

ALKS technology allows a driver to relinquish control of the vehicle to the car’s system, although they must remain available to resume driving.

The system - described by DfT as “traffic jam chauffeur technology” - is designed to constantly monitor speed and maintain a safe distance from other cars through the use of cameras and sensors.

If the system detects an “imminent collision risk”, it will initiate an “emergency manoeuvre” that could involve braking or a change of direction.

According to DfT, the technology has the potential to boost road safety as over 85 per cent of accidents are caused by human error.

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

Transport minister Rachel Maclean hailed the development as a “major step for the safe use of self-driving vehicles in the UK” that would make car journeys “greener, easier and more reliable while also helping the nation to build back better”.

She added: “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 What Car?, called the new policy a “sensible first step” towards autonomous driving.

“These are very, very controlled circumstances, low speed, relatively straight roads, clear road markings. In theory this should be a very effective way of using the technology to good effect.”

He said the UK is in a “global competition” to develop the technology, adding that the announcement “gets us back in the race” as the UK is lagging “a bit behind” the US and China.

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said humans are “invariably the weak link” when it comes to driving safely.

But he warned of “challenges” when journeys involve a transfer of control between technology and the person 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,” said Mr Gooding.

“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.”

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