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Legislative Update: Autonomous vehicles en route to UK roads


Despite the predictions of politicians in years gone by, driverless cars are not yet roaming UK roads.  But the road blocks to seeing this come to reality are not only technological, here we will take a brief look at some of the things the government is doing to remove the legislative barriers to operating autonomous vehicles on our public roads.

A few years ago, we reported that a fleet of FiveAI cars had been dispatched into the streets of London in order to gather data to inform and refine the Artificial Intelligence (AI) behind autonomous vehicles (AVs).  These cars were driven by highly trained drivers with the aim of collecting sensor data on the road environment, the traffic flow and the behaviour of other road users in such urban environments.

This data, was then used to build towards the subsequent trials where the AVs took over the driving for a 13 mile route with passengers on board.  Understandably, at first the passengers were cautious and nervous of this new experience, but were soon reassured by the driving results the technology was able to display.

Other similar projects have also been fuelling the technical progress towards truly autonomous vehicles being released into the streets outside of such trials.  However, the obstacles to be overcome are not only technical, legal aspects will also need to be addressed including the certification of AV models for use on the streets, updating The Highway Code, and adapting the framework of the law to issues such as who is liable for the actions of an AV.  For example, Rule 150 of The Highway Code currently states that the driver “MUST exercise proper control of [their] vehicle at all times”, which would not be the case when an AV is operating in a truly autonomous mode.  With this in mind, it is reassuring to see that the UK Government has been pushing ahead with consultations on the laws required to allow AVs to operate on UK streets.

A first step on the road of automation will be the introduction of Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS), which is set to be the first commercially available system that is designed to take over dynamic driving tasks from the driver to truly control the vehicle within the relevant operating conditions.  The UK aims to be a global leader in the development and adoption of such automated vehicle technology and so last summer the government launched a consultation on which national updates are required for the adoption of ALKS.

Current iterations of these systems are directed to motorway usage, but in a single lane and with speeds limited to 37 mph, rather than full motorway speeds.  This use case is particularly for queueing and stop-start traffic on motorways, which can be some of the most inefficient parts of a journey.  Accordingly, this speed limited technology is set to reduce vehicle emissions, prevent human error accidents, and improve the easing of congestion.

The initial consultation, the report of which can be found here, concluded that driver awareness and education is going to be key in the safe adoption of ALKS technology, with suggestions for the responsibility for this training being divided between the government and the vehicle manufacturers themselves.  This will not only help some drivers to overcome their caution around the technology, but also help others to know the limits of these systems and prevent over-reliance.  A key issue to be overcome appears to be the balance between the capabilities of the system through over-engineering, and the response timeframe within which the ‘driver’ can reasonably be expected to regain control of the vehicle, with the requisite situational awareness, following a transition demand, for example when the automated systems operational conditions have been exceeded.

On the back of the initial consultation, updates to The Highway Code have been proposed and are now part of a further consultation, which can be seen here.  This progress is good news for the evolution of autonomous driving and it looks like the UK will be set to welcome cars fitted with ALKS technology onto our streets in 2022.

The ALKS technology is designed to keep the vehicle in a given lane, with the driver being required to regain control for any lane change manoeuvres etc., and thus many will disagree with the government’s labelling of this technology as autonomous.  While drivers are intended to be able to perform non-driving activities during ALKS usage, they should be in a position to regain control of the vehicle (within 10 seconds according to current proposals) when requested through a transition demand.  As such, ALKS technology can at least be considered to be an enhanced driver assistance system that, with the appropriate driver understanding of capability, is a step in the right direction for autonomous driving.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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