- The UK government will allow self-driving cars to operate on motorways later this year.
- Vehicles fitted with a lane-keeping system will be permitted at speeds of up to 37 mph.
- The UK remains a ways behind the US, where Google-owned Waymo operates autonomous taxis.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Motorists in the UK could soon be able to take their hands off the wheel while driving as the country outlines its plans to introduce regulations for self-driving cars.
The UK government on Wednesday set out how vehicles fitted with an automated lane-keeping system could be allowed on the roads by the end of 2021.
It marks a sizable step forward for the country in its ambitions to become a leader in autonomous driving. As it stands, the UK is considered the ninth-most-ready country for self-driving cars, according to a study by KPMG. It remains some ways behind the likes of Singapore, Norway, and the US.
ALKS will be initially enabled for use on motorways in slow traffic where vehicles will be able to drive themselves in a single lane and will be limited to a speed limit of 37 mph. The introduction of ALKS differs from previous autonomous technologies in that it allows the driver to take their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road. In theory drivers could do other things in the car while it is navigating traffic.
This differs from other systems like adaptive cruise control – where a vehicle would match the pace of the car ahead – and Tesla’s Autopilot. In circumstances such as those, the driver still must be paying attention and be able to immediately assume control of the vehicle.
Meanwhile in the US, Alphabet-owned Waymo launched a ride-hailing self-driving taxi service in the Phoenix area in October. In Japan earlier this year, Honda began selling its Legend, which has the ability to control acceleration, braking, and steering.
An ALKS is still a ways off from what is considered a fully autonomous driving system in which motorists can hand over full control of the vehicle and which likely wouldn’t have steering wheels or pedals.
An ALKS is considered a Level 3 autonomous-driving feature, while fully autonomous driving is considered Level 5. To date, there are few vehicles with the feature. The Honda Legend currently has ALKS installed, while Mercedes is expected to release a Series S boasting the capability.
A subtle switch that gives the car primary control for the first time
Stan Boland, chief executive of the autonomous-driving-training platform Five AI, said the introduction of ALKS meant the vehicle was in primary control for the first time.
“That means that the driver can take their hands off the wheel, their eyes off the road, and are able to allow the system to control the vehicle, which obviously requires a much higher safety threshold,” he said.
“Its significance initially is limited apart from this profound quality that the car is in control, but it’s a starting point because we’ll see that legislation increment to allow higher speeds and operate in more complex environments.”
Some lawmakers in the UK say the introduction of autonomous systems such as ALKS could improve road safety by reducing human error, which accounts for about 85% of accidents in the country.
Rachel Maclean, the UK transport minister, said it was a “major step for the safe use of self-driving vehicles”.
“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,” she said in a statement.
The Department of Transport said the introduction of autonomous vehicles could spark the “beginning of the end” of congestion and help reduce emissions and improve air quality.
Despite the UK’s lagging behind its international peers, some say the country’s approach will pay dividends in the long run.
Patricia La Torre, head of strategic partnerships at Humanising Autonomy, an AI company that predicts the behaviours of the most vulnerable people on roads, like pedestrians, cyclists, and those in wheelchairs, said the introduction of ALKS sent the right signal to the industry.
“The UK takes a very good ecosystem and partnership approach, which I think is very strong compared to other countries,” she told Insider.
“Here we’re getting a lot more feedback from organizations like ourselves … so that’s a unique approach, and I think that’s going to help in the long term.”