Proposed hands-free driving laws “will put lives at risk”, warn safety experts

Thatcham Research hits out at Government proposals to allow hands and eyes-off driving from next year with Automated Lane Keeping Systems

Driverless car

Proposed changes to road laws that would see drivers allowed to take their hands off the steering wheel and eyes off the road at up to 70mph “will put UK motorists’ lives at risk”, according to safety experts. 

The Government is consulting on whether cars with an Automated Lane Keeping System, or ALKS, can be used with minimal human input at speeds up to 70mph from spring 2021. The move comes as the UK tries to position itself at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology, with ministers wanting the UK to be “the first country to see these benefits, attracting manufacturers to develop and test new technologies.”

Drivers would potentially be allowed to watch films on in-car infotainment screens when the car is taking over driving responsibilities, but motorists would have to be prepared to step in if the system encountered an issue it could not handle. These limitations, and others, have caused Thatcham Research to warn that it “has serious safety concerns” about the proposals.

“The Government’s plan threatens road safety,” Thatcham’s director of research, Matthew Avery, says. “UK insurers and Thatcham really support automation”, he continues. “Proper automation is what we want. This is not proper automation. This does not replace a competent human driver. If you need the driver to save the day, you can’t let the driver do anything that distracts them.”

Avery says while cars with type-approved ALKS have yet to hit the roads, “the sensors we’re looking at today, we believe will be used by vehicles in the future. If technology advances, it’s got to advance by quantum leaps before it’s good enough.”

Avery and Thatcham have other concerns, including:

  • ALKS regulations do not allow the system to change lanes to avoid an obstacle, meaning the car would either stop in-lane, or the driver would have to take over.
  • Concerns over the efficacy of traffic-sign recognition. Would ALKS be able to detect a partially obscured red X lane-closure sign on a smart motorway, for example?
  • The inability to predict potential scenarios, such as an occupant emerging into a live lane from a broken-down car.
  • Drivers could have to take over from the systems in certain circumstances, but it takes 10-15 seconds to become “cognitively aware” of the road following inactivity; a car could travel almost 500 metres in that time. 
  • The fact the Government is proposing to “go beyond” regulations with proposals to allow ALKS to be used at speeds up to 70mph.

Instead of pushing ahead with the ideas contained in the consultation, Avery considers the Government should take a far more cautious approach. 

“All of this seems like it’s not well thought through, and we’re not ready for it. Let’s call it ‘assisted’, let's introduce the technology, and let’s see what drivers do with it whilst they’re watching what’s going on.”

What is the Government proposing?

The Department for Transport and the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles  launched a consultation in August into whether drivers would be able to take their hands off the wheel, and eyes off the road, when using Automated Lane Keeping System, or ALKS. 

ALKS effectively comprises four systems:

  • Lane-keep assistance, which steers a car within its lane
  • Adaptive cruise control, which matches the speed of a vehicle in front
  • Auto-emergency braking, which can stop a car if an obstacle is detected
  • Traffic-sign recognition, allowing the vehicle to read speed limits and other signs

Systems similar to ALKS are already on the road, but the formalisation of the combined technologies, and the manner of their intended use, are new, and set out in United Nations Economic Committee for Europe (UNECE) rules. ALKS is expected to be certifiable under type approval rules by early 2021, meaning the systems would be judged to meet certain criteria, and could be used on the road.

But while regulations allow ALKS to operate at up to 60km/h (37mph), the Government is consulting on if the systems should be allowed to be used at 70mph in the UK. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps says we can deviate from UNECE standards as we can “exploit the regulatory flexibilities” thanks to Brexit. 

The Government insists this would be dependent on vehicle manufacturers declaring, independently from the type approval process, that their systems could operate at 70mph, however.

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