LONDON – The U.K. government has started consultation on allowing autonomous driving – self-driving – modes up to 70mph, with the potential for legislation as early as spring 2021, bringing U.K. law and standards in line with UNECE targets.
The consultation period will run until October 27, 2020, with industry bodies providing expert feedback as well as comments from the public, but it is worth noting this is just the first stage towards autonomous cars on British roads.
The consultation is specifically focused on ALKS (Automated Lane Keeping Systems) and operation on motorways, where pedestrians, cyclists and animals should not be a consideration.
What does this mean?
Rather than the time-limited, hands on the wheel systems you can get currently from premium marques such as Mercedes-Benz and Audi, you’ll be able to enjoy the same stress-free approach of autonomous driving as you do with traffic-jam systems at legal motorway speeds.
It is highly likely the legislation will proceed – supported by industry bodies such as the AA, who welcome any new safety system – but for it to do so several previous laws must change.
These address the issues of insurance and liability in an autonomous car and received Royal Assent in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act (AEVA) 2018. In essence, should an accident happen that is caused by self-driving car, the occupants (including the driver) are covered; an often-overlooked element of car insurance is the cost of fixing humans, rather than metal.
AEVA’s Five Laws of Robotic Cars
Okay, it is not quite Asimov, but to be defined as autonomous the car must:
1: Comply with relevant road traffic rules
2: Avoid collisions which a competent and careful driver could avoid
3: Treat other road users with reasonable consideration
4: Avoid putting itself in a position where it would be the cause of a collision
5: Recognize when it is operating outside of its operational domain
The fifth law is particularly relevant; ALKS cannot operate outside of motorway conditions. But there are other considerations, such as reading signs at gantry height for speed limits (and how many times has your limit-detecting car picked up on the roundels on a lorry or caravan?) and dealing with vehicles such as HGVs that may obscure signs that overrule the road’s status or limits at the time.
Are we dumbing-down driving?
Autonomous vehicle technologies, of which automated lane keeping is the latest, will be “life-changing, making our journeys safer and smoother than ever before and helping prevent some 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade,” said SMMT chief executive, Mike Hawes.
These systems are optional and designed to take the tedium and stress out of day-to-day driving; they are not a replacement for the driver or a sign that driving enjoyment is under threat.
The reality of such systems – more advanced systems, even – is being demonstrated and proven around the world, but for now it could be seen as welcome assistive system that should reduce frustration, never take another car’s actions personally, and adhere to the law faithfully on some of the least interesting (yet most vital) routes in the U.K.