Motorists could soon be able to legally drive ‘hands free’ for the first time ever in the UK, under government plans.
Fully autonomous cars are a step closer to reality after the Government announced today that it will investigate the use of Automated Lane Keep Systems (ALKS) in vehicles that could be on the road as early as next year.
The Department for Transport has launched a call for evidence to determine if ALKS should legally be classed as an ‘automated system’, which would mean the technology provider would be responsible for the safety of the vehicle when the system is engaged, rather than the driver.
This would allow drivers to legally use them to pilot their cars without having to keep their hands on the wheel, as they must currently do with systems such as Tesla’s.
Keeping drivers on the straight and narrow: The Government has launches a call for evidence regarding the introduction of Level 3 vehicle autonomy that could arrive on UK roads next year
ALKS are categorised as ‘Level 3’ autonomy and can take over control of a vehicle, keeping it in lane so the driver doesn’t need to have any input.
The call for evidence will seek views on minsters’ proposals to allow the safe use of these systems on British motorways at limited speeds of up to 70mph.
More than 50 countries, including EU member states, have agreed common regulations for vehicles with ALKS, United Nations rule makers announced in June.
But strict requirements suggested by the UN include a use at maximum speeds of 60kph (37mph), a data-storing ‘black box’ being on board, the driver wearing a seatbelt at all times and the device only activating on roads equipped with a central reservation dividing traffic moving in opposite directions, where pedestrians and cyclists are prohibited.
Mandatory rules on the tech will come into force in January 2021, with the first cars to have the systems available to customers expected to arrive in the UK around spring.
It is the ‘first binding international regulation’ on Level 3 vehicle autonomy, the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe confirmed earlier in the year.
Level 3 signifies that the person at the wheel is not driving when the automated systems are engaged, but can step in at any time and must take over at the system’s request.
With a Level 3 system activated, the user is allowed to do other things, such as watch a movie or even send a text message, but must retain some level of alertness.
There are five stages of autonomy for self-driving cars, with Level 5 being full autonomy.
When activated, the ALKS keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything.
However, the driver must be ready and able to resume driving control within seconds if prompted by the vehicle.
While it is similar to the technology already being used by Tesla, which it calls Autopilot, the US firm’s system is only deemed Level 2 – where drivers are expected to keep their attention on traffic.
Lane Keeping Assist – a function that’s been available in new cars for over a decade – is also deemed to fall into Level 1 and 2 because it only alerts the driver that they are veering out of their lane and it is up to the user to steer the vehicle.
When activated, an Automated Lane Keep System keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything
Currently, the highest level of vehicle autonomy being used on UK roads is Tesla’s Autopilot, which is classified as Level 2
If given the green light, Automated Lane Keep Systems will be the first instance of Level 3 vehicle autonomy in the UK
With ALKS looking set to be the first example of Level 3 vehicle autonomy in the UK, the DfT confirmed that 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 and ‘within the current legal framework’.
‘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,’ the department said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Government has proposed for the use of this ‘low speed’ system at speeds of up to 70mph to allow for them to be activated on motorways – which is 33mph faster than the speed limit enforced under the UN’s regulations.
Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said: ‘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.
‘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.’
The end of the nag function for cars that can pilot themselves
A range of cars already feature technology that mean they can all but drive themselves, writes Simon Lambert, but the law says that you must keep your hands on the wheel and be involved.
The most high profile of these systems is Tesla’s Autopilot – a name that isn’t entirely accurate as you aren’t allowed to just let the car drive you.
I’ve experienced Autopilot in a number of iterations in recent years, in a Tesla Model S, Model X and most recently last year a Model 3.
Tesla’s Autopilot system currently requires you to keep your hands on the wheel, as Simon Lambert found out when he tested a Model 3
The system can steer the car and speed up and slow down, maintaining a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front. It can also change lanes if you tell it to.
But you must keep your hands on the wheel and there is a nag function if you don’t. Essentially, removing that requirement at some times is what the Government is suggesting today.
Autopilot is activated with a simple couple of taps of the steering wheel stalk, at which point the car will steer itself, accelerate and slow down and change lane if you indicate.
It’s only advised to be used on motorways and, as mentioned above, you must keep your hands on the wheel. Tesla has cracked down on this since I drove a Model S a few years ago, as I discovered.
‘Apply light force to steering wheel’, the Model 3 told me, shortly after I had engaged Autopilot.
‘But hang on a minute, I’ve got my hands on the wheel and I’m driving in a straight line’, I thought. So, I simply held the wheel a bit tighter and continued on my way.
At which point, the Tesla shot me another couple of warnings, so I gripped the wheel a bit harder.
That clearly wasn’t enough, as the car then announced that it was turning off Autopilot and I wasn’t allowed to use it for the rest of the journey.
If you want something to dent your self-confidence, try being told by a car that you’re not a good enough driver to be driven by it.
This was the Model 3’s nag function, designed to stop people just relying on the car.
That warning – I later found out – was telling me I needed to apply some slight torque to the steering wheel to let the car know that I had got the message. A slight enough rotation for the sensors to register, but not enough to shift the car’s line would have done it.
Tesla owners’ forum members also suggest a tweak of the stereo volume buttons on the wheel does the trick.
If you do let the system guide you along – and the car doesn’t bar you as it did me on that occasion – it is initially an unnerving feeling, but this soon passes and you relax into letting the vehicle do the heavy lifting.
A more useful function that I prefer is the ability to slow down and speed up the car in traffic, which is a part of Autopilot but also a widespread feature on many other cars known as adaptive cruise control.
While I would never want to swap being able to choose to drive for a fully autonomous world where you must be driven, systems like Autopilot can be a real blessing, particularly in the kind of heavy traffic where driving is a chore and making mistakes is easy.
The DfT has launched a call for evidence to determine if ALKS should legally be classed as an ‘automated system’, which would mean the technology provider would be responsible for the safety of the vehicle when the system is engaged, rather than the driver
The Government says it is acting now to ‘ensure that regulation is ready where necessary’ when ALKS is eventually introduced.
Commenting on the potential arrival of ALKS in the UK, Edmund King, AA president, said: ‘Over the last fifty years leading edge in-car technology from seat belts to airbags and ABS has helped to save thousands of lives.
‘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.’
Mike Hawes, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive, believes the tech could help to ‘prevent some 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade’.
He added: ‘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.’
The DfT said that later this year it intends to launch a public consultation on the detail of any changes to legislation and the Highway Code that are proposed as a result of the new call for evidence on ALKS.
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