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Eyes on the road: automated vehicles are closer than we think

Background

Automated vehicles are a topic that has been on the government’s agenda since the 2013 National Infrastructure Plan. There have been numerous consultations, information requests and studies published by the government in respect of the development of automated vehicle technology during this time. The government has repeatedly made clear that it wants to be at the forefront of automated vehicle technologies that will pave the way towards fully driverless cars.

Benefits to Society of Automated Vehicles

The foreword to the recent April 2021 government consultation (the “April 2021 Consultation”) emphasises the expansive benefits to society of automated vehicle technology in the UK:

New zero-emission self-driving bus, taxi and delivery services could make public transport greener, cheaper, more efficient and more accessible. […] And it could make our roads safer, reducing human errors that can lead to accidents and collisions. […] As well as providing improved transport for all, the technology could also deliver huge economic benefits. The market in the UK could be worth as much as £42 billion by 2035, capturing around 6% of the £650 billion global market, and creating approximately 38,000 new jobs.”

Recent April 2021 Consultation

The recent April 2021 Consultation focuses on proposed changes to The Highway Code in order to enable the safe use of Automated Lane Keeping System (“ALKS”) technologies in vehicles in the UK. ALKS is, according to the consultation paper, a “traffic jam chauffeur technology designed to control the lateral and longitudinal movement of the vehicle for an extended period without further driver command. At such times, the system is in primary control of the vehicle, and performs the driving task instead of the driver, at low speeds on motorways.”

This is seen by many as the first significant step towards automated driving, as the government intends for vehicles fitted with ALKS technology to legally be defined as automated vehicles. The April 2021 Consultation seeks views on the proposed new wording of The Highway Code, wording that will clarify the responsibility of the driver and the vehicle for automated vehicles.

What is the New Proposed Wording in The Highway Code?

The new proposed wording is as follows:

“Automated vehicles can perform all the tasks involved in driving, in at least some situations. They differ from vehicles fitted with assisted driving features (like cruise control and lane-keeping assistance), which carry out some tasks, but where the driver is still responsible for driving. If you are driving a vehicle with assisted driving features, you MUST stay in control of the vehicle.

Automated vehicles are vehicles that are listed by the Secretary of State for Transport. While an automated vehicle is driving itself, you are not responsible for how it drives, and you do not need to pay attention to the road. But you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions about when it is appropriate to engage the self-driving function.

If the vehicle is designed to require you to resume driving after being prompted to, while the vehicle is driving itself, you MUST remain in a position to be able to take control. For example, you should not move out of the driving seat. You should not be so distracted that you cannot take back control when prompted by the vehicle.”

What is Next?

The consultation is now closed and a summary of responses was due to be published in summer 2021. The government intends to lay amendments to The Highway Code in Parliament by the end of 2021 in order to ensure the UK is ready for the introduction of ALKS on the roads in the UK by this time.

It will be interesting to see the responses to this consultation, as many have urged caution in the government’s pursuit of its ambitious agenda. We would expect to see responses that discuss whether the use of ALKS should be considered assisted driving (similarly to cruise control) rather than automated driving for the purposes of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 and whether the dispensation of the need of the driver to pay attention to the road when using ALKS technology is safe at this stage.

If the general consensus is that more caution should be exercised, it will be interesting to see how this affects the amendments presented to Parliament. Nonetheless, it is expected that the government will continue their bold pursuit of its ambitious agenda, paving the way for the UK to be a global pioneer in this area.

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