UK Drivers Could be Hands-Free By Next Year

In what many traditionalists will see as a seismic change, UK drivers could be in charge of vehicles without holding the steering wheel by as soon as next spring.

The nation’s government has announced consultations on the legal hands-free use of Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) in what could pave the way to rapid acceptance of higher level automated driving technologies. Since the beginning of cars on public highways, the UK, in common with most countries around the world, has mandated that drivers must have hands on the vehicle’s steering wheel at all times while driving.

To rescind this law would open the door to the full legal deployment of Level 3 and above driverless technology on UK roads with motorists able to get on with other tasks within the cabin while the vehicle’s technologies handle the mission critical driving functions. The move by the UK’s Department of Transport (DfT) mirrors similar consultations over ALKS under way by the United Nation’s Economic Commission and would apply to highway speeds of up to the national speed limit of 70mph.

The move would form the first time ever drivers would be able to delegate the task of driving to the vehicle. The systems, currently featured on some premium vehicles from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors and Tesla, claim to keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything beyond keeping hands on the steering wheel.

The deregulating to hands-free control could be allowed as long as the systems are sufficiently robust in prompting drivers to be ready again to take control of the steering when situations require.

The UK government says it 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 within the current legal framework. The call for evidence will ask whether vehicles using this technology should be legally defined as an automated vehicle which, crucially for the automakers, would mean the technology provider would be responsible for the safety of the vehicle when the system is engaged, rather than the driver.


Tesla, for example, has been able to sidestep legal action over accidents caused by its Autopilot technology citing its user clause that the driver must be in control of the vehicle at all times. With hands-free, that driver can’t be in control. So if Tesla, or any automaker for that matter, wants to market its products employing ALKS where hands-free operation is fully legal, it will have to take on the full legal responsibility for the malfunction of its technology.

Both motoring and automotive industry representatives have broadly supported the consultations. Edmund King, president of the UK motorist organization the AA, said: “Over the last 50 years, leading edge in-car technology from seat belts to airbags and ABS has helped to save thousands of lives. The government is right to be consulting on the latest collision-avoidance system which has the potential to make our roads even safer in the future.”

Meanwhile, Mike Hawes, Society of Motoring Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) chief executive, said: “Autonomous vehicle technologies, of which automated lane keeping is the latest, will be life-changing, making our journeys safer and smoother than ever before and helping prevent some 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade. This advanced technology is ready for roll out in new models from as early as 2021, so today’s announcement is a welcome step in bringing the regulation up to speed so that the UK can be among the first to grasp the benefits of this road safety revolution.”

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

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