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Government could allow self-driving cars by the end of 2021

Recently the government announced that fully automated, “self-driving” vehicles could be legalised and introduced onto UK roads by the end of 2021, in which they have already made it evident that they want to transform the UK into a paradigm of clean energy and motoring, whilst putting it at the vanguard of technological innovation, particularly when it concerns autonomous technology. While autonomous technology has seen considerable advances in the past few years and is becoming increasingly more sophisticated and diverse in its capabilities, there are still anxieties over how realistic and viable the government’s ambitions are, and ethical, legal, and safety concerns combined with uncertainty over what stage of development the required technology is at, may significantly hinder the government’s implementation of their policies and legislation.

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For a car to be classified as self-driving, it must be able to perform all driving functions independently of the driver without requiring their intervention. This definition contrasts with what the government specifies as a self-driving vehicle, in which any vehicle with ALKS (automated-lane-keeping-system) technology, no substantial evidence to dispute its autonomous capabilities, and a GB type approval can be identified as self-driving. The government is already seeking to utilise ALKS technology, which maintains a vehicle’s position in a single lane and adjusts its speed when necessary up to a limit 37 mph. This will be the first example of “self-driving” technology to be authorised on the roads according to the Department for Transport.

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Although the use of ALKS technology should mean that the driver does not need to remain aware of what is happening on the road and can therefore take their hands off the wheel to entertain themselves with other things on their journey, the government has stipulated that drivers will still be required to assume control of the vehicle within 10 seconds of being notified by the system, and will thus have to be awake and attentive. If in the event that the driver is not able to have control of the vehicle delegated temporarily to them, the vehicle will turn on its hazard lights and slow to a stop.

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Whilst many manufacturers have applauded the government’s dedication to vehicle automation and cited its potential to reduce and perhaps even eliminate human error, which is the primary cause of road accidents, with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders stating “Automated driving systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3900 lives over the next decade”, others have been far more critical. Many have accused the government of misleading the public by overestimating the stage which autonomous technologies are currently at, which in turn could lead to neglection of driving responsibilities and an increased number of severe accidents, as well as claiming that cars that stop in the middle of a road may pose further safety issues, and it is incorrect to present ALKS as anything other than driver assistance. As a result, motor insurers and safety experts will continue to scrutinise the government's automation policies and establish rules that they must operate off when finalising any legislation.

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