A section of the M1 motorway

Limited self-driving tech gets regulatory approval for UK roads later this year

Image credit: Alamy

Driverless vehicles could come to British roads by the end of this year, the Department for Transport (DfT) has announced.

The government has set out how vehicles fitted with Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) technology could legally be defined as self-driving, as long as they receive approval.

Designed for use on a motorway in slow traffic, ALKS enables a vehicle to drive itself in a single lane, while maintaining the ability to easily and safely return control to the driver when required.

The current plans would allow hands-free driving in vehicles with lane-keeping technology on motorways with slow traffic, only at speeds up to 37mph. In the event the system detects an “imminent collision risk”, it will carry out an “emergency manoeuvre”, which could involve braking or a change of direction.

The technology could improve road safety by reducing human error, which contributes to over 85 per cent of accidents.

The driver will be able to hand control over to the vehicle, which will constantly monitor speed and keep a safe distance from other cars. They will also not need to keep their hands on wheel when it is driving itself but they will be expected to stay alert and be ready to assume control within 10 seconds when requested by the system.

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.”

The plans follow a consultation launched by the government in August designed to get responses on ALKS technology with the ultimate aim to legalise it.

But insurance companies have warned that the limitations of the technology must be made clear if Britain wants to be a leader in driverless tech.

While the sector is hopeful that the technology will slash accidents and deaths, and save them billions in payouts, there are also concerns that drivers might equate today’s lower levels of automation with fully self-driving vehicles, potentially causing more accidents in the short term.

“What you describe things as is incredibly important, so people don’t use them inappropriately,” said David Williams, managing director of underwriting at AXA Insurance.

“I genuinely believe the world will be a safer place with autonomous vehicles and I really don’t want that derailed.”

Such concerns were realised earlier this month when two men being transported autonomously by a Tesla in Texas died in a crash after they left the driver’s seat entirely unattended.

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