UK government takes the next step in bringing self-driving cars to motorways

A new consultation aims to explore how autonomous technology can be used safely on UK roads.

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The UK government has launched a call for evidence that self-driving vehicles can be driven safely on city streets and motorways. 

On August 18, the UK Department for Transport, and the Center for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, announced a new consultation focused on bringing autonomous vehicles to UK roads by 2021. 

The evidence call focuses on "shaping how innovative new systems could be used in future on GB roads," including the Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS), technology that takes over control of a car at lower speeds while keeping it in the right lane on motorways.

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The national speed limit on British motorways is 70mph (112 km/h).

Self-driving and autonomous vehicle technology can be roughly categorized into assistance features and the takeover of typical driver responsibilities. While driver assistance systems -- such as the use of camera feeds during parking, and maps -- are becoming increasingly common in the market, there is still hesitancy when it comes to fully autonomous driving. 

Automated vehicles could make travel safer, and on motorways, driving is often a tedious and boring task. While the idea of hands-free driving on long stretches of road is a tantalizing one, the government wants to ascertain how rules relating to ALKS can be established within the current legal framework -- as well as who would be liable for accidents or crashes. 

A particular focus is whether or not ALKS-enabled cars would be defined as "autonomous" under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018. 

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Vehicles defined this way under the act need to be able to drive independently and without any monitoring, so if ALKS is under this umbrella rather than described as only a driver assistance feature, it may be subject to harsher regulations and controls.   

"The government is seeking views from industry on the role of the driver and proposed rules on the use of this system to pave the way towards introducing it safely in Great Britain, within the current legal framework," the Department for Transport says. "The call for evidence will ask whether vehicles using this technology should be legally defined as an automated vehicle, which would mean the technology provider would be responsible for the safety of the vehicle when the system is engaged, rather than the driver."

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The consultation will last until October 27. Later in the year, a separate public consultation will be held to release the results of the ALKS call to evidence and any proposed changes to the Highway Code in relation to hands-free driving. 

"Automated technology could make driving safer, smoother and easier for motorists and the UK should be the first country to see these benefits, attracting manufacturers to develop and test new technologies," commented Transport Minister Rachel Maclean.

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