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Plan for 'self-driving' car legislation announced by UK Government

Date: 28 April 2021   |   Author: Sean Keywood

"Self-driving" cars could be allowed on British roads for the first time later this year, in limited circumstances, according to the Department for Transport.

It said automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) could be legalised, allowing drivers to hand over control to their vehicle. However, they would only be allowed on motorways, at speeds of up to 37mph, and the system would need to be able to safely return control to the driver when required.

Today's announcement has been welcomed by the motor industry - but drawn criticism from safety organisation Thatcham Research, and others.

The announcement comes following a call for evidence on the matter, and alongside a consultation on Highway Code rules for using the technology. Proposed amendments say that drivers of an automated vehicle would not need to pay attention to the road, but must still be in a position to take back control when prompted.

Autonomous driving is hoped to contribute to road safety, with human error blamed for more than 85% of accidents.

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."

Reacting to the announcement, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes said: "The automotive industry welcomes this vital step to permit the use of automated vehicles on UK roads, which will put Britain in the vanguard of road safety and automotive technology. 

"Automated driving systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade through their ability to reduce the single largest cause of road accidents - human error.

"Technologies such as automated lane keeping systems will pave the way for higher levels of automation in future - and 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."

Thatcham Research director of research Matthew Avery said caution was needed in moves towards autonomous driving.

He said: "There is still a lot of work needed by both legislators and the automotive industry before any vehicle can be classed as automated and allowed safely on to the UK roads.

"ALKS as currently proposed by the Government are not automated. They are assisted driving systems as they rely on the driver to take back control.

"Aside from the lack of technical capabilities, by calling ALKS automated our concern also is that the UK Government is contributing to the confusion and frequent misuse of assisted driving systems that have unfortunately already led to many tragic deaths.

"A widespread and effective ongoing communications campaign led by the automotive industry and supported by insurers and safety organisations is essential if we are going to address current and future misconceptions and misuse."

Ian McIntosh, CEO of Red Driver Risk Management said: "We were particularly concerned about the proposed line for the Highway Code in the Department for Transport consultation on Automatic Lane Keeping Systems which stated "While an automated vehicle is driving itself, you are not responsible for how it drives, and you do not need to pay attention to the road.".

"Autonomous driving technology can help make vehicles safer, but to suggest that the driver is not ultimately responsible for the operation of a car or van is utterly wrong - and potentially dangerous. The driver must always be fully accountable, and the fact that even at the consultation stage removing this basic concept has been mooted, suggests the Government has got too far ahead of itself, the technology and the fleet industry on this.

"It sends the wrong message to drivers, sows confusion about what technology can do, and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the fleet sector's needs in terms of risk management and duty of care.

"There are already so many unanswered questions about how autonomous vehicles will operate in the real world, such as who is liable in the event of an accident, and so at this early stage to be thinking of taking the driver out of the equation makes the issue even more challenging. Who is going to be held responsible and accountable if the person behind the wheel isn't?"

Association of British Insurers (ABI) assistant director and head of general insurance policy Mark Shepherd said: "While the insurance industry fully supports the development towards more automated vehicles, drivers must not be given unrealistic expectations about a system's capability. 

"It is vital that ALKS, which rely on the driver to take back control, are not classed as automated, but as assisted systems. By keeping this distinction clear we can help ensure that the rules around ALKS are appropriate and put driver and passenger safety first.

"Thatcham Research has identified some concerning scenarios where ALKS may not operate safely without the driver intervening. These need to be addressed in the consultation."

Thatcham and the ABI have said that automated driving systems must be able to safely change lanes to avoid incidents, be able to find a 'safe harbour' at the side of the road and not stop in a live lane, be able to recognise UK road signs, and must send out data to show whether the system or the driver was in charge of the vehicle at any time.

Calum McPhail, head of technical and complex motor claims at insurance company Zurich, said: "Zurich has always been a staunch supporter of automation as it has the potential to save lives and make mobility easier and more efficient - but it is of paramount importance that this done as safely as possible.

"ALKS is a significant step towards automation but put simply it does not provide full automation. Likewise, any system that requires a human driver as a safeguard should absolutely not be considered to be automated.

"There are a number of serious concerns that Zurich sees under the ALKS regulation. Unless these can be addressed, it is Zurich's view that these systems should be classified as driver assistance systems and not be listed as automated under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act.

"Zurich and the UK insurance industry has worked with the government in good faith to support the development of a legal framework that enables the safe and efficient introduction of automated vehicles. We have consistently argued that there must be a simple and logical distinction between assisted and automated driving systems to avoid consumer confusion, misuse and unnecessary litigation."