Regulators Warned Against Allowing Driverless Lane-Change

Automotive safety experts and insurers are warning the UK government against its haste in allowing automated lane changing technology on to public roads.

Thatcham Research and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) are jointly urging the nation’s government to revise its plans to introduce Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) onto UK roads in early 2021 saying the move will put road users’ lives at risk. They suggest regulators should undertake further work with all interested parties to ensure road safety is fully considered before introducing the technology.

The experts believe that neither the technology nor the existing transport regulations allow for levels of control afforded by a competent and engaged human driver and are not safe enough to be classified as ‘Automated Driving’. Yet the government could still allow ALKS to be used on UK motorways up to speeds of 70mph from next Spring, pending the results of a safety consultation that ended this week.

The main significance in the proposed move is that, for the first time in the UK, a driver could legally take hands off the steering wheel, with their eyes off the road, to allow the vehicle to drive in automated mode. Thatcham says it has serious safety concerns about this plan because ALKS are largely based on today’s Assisted Driving technology.

Thatcham’s trials of the technology has revealed glaring incompetence in several areas including scenarios such as debris on the carriageway, pedestrian encroachment and highway lane closure. In this last scenario, it found the sensors used in current technology are only able to monitor a relatively short distance up the carriageway.

Tests showed sensors contained within today’s Assisted Driving technology can only interpret up to around 120 meters (131-yards). At motorway speeds, that distance allows only four seconds to take back control and avoid an incident. Current studies suggest a driver needs more than 15 seconds to properly engage and react appropriately to a hazard. That’s 500 meters (546-yards) more required distance than today’s technology provides.

Matthew Avery, Thatcham Research director of research explained: “The government’s plan threatens road safety. Motorists could feasibly watch television in their car from early next year because they believe their ALKS can be completely trusted to do the job of a human driver. But that’s not the reality. The limitations of the technology mean it should be classified as ‘Assisted Driving’ because the driver must be engaged, ready to take over.”

James Dalton, ABI director, general insurance policy, added: “The insurance industry is 100% committed to supporting the development of automated vehicles, which have the potential to dramatically improve road safety and revolutionize our transport systems. Vehicles equipped with an automated lane-keeping system are a great step towards developing automated vehicles. However, drivers must not be given unrealistic expectations about a system’s capability. Thatcham Research has identified some concerning scenarios where ALKS may not operate safely without the driver intervening. We strongly believe the timings for the introduction of ALKS should be revised to prevent lives being put at risk.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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