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Highway Code changes will outline rules for self-driving cars

Transport ministers have confirmed plans to update the Highway Code with new rules on self-driving vehicle systems, to give them the green light on UK roads.

The Department for Transport said today that a dedicated section will be added to the road user’s guide detailing when and how motorists should safely use these features – and also outline that they will not be held liable if crashes occur when the technology is active.

It will see a complete U-turn on a number of current regulations, including allowing motorists to watch films and other video content on built-in display screens inside their cars.

However, using a mobile phone, even when the self-driving mode is active, will still be banned. Ministers said this is due to the ‘greater distraction risk’ they pose to drivers, with tougher punishments for touching devices at the wheel introduced only last month.

You won’t be allowed to use a phone at the wheel even when hi-tech cars are steering themselves: The Highway Code is set to be updated with rules around self-driving technology

Following a raft of controversial changes to the Highway Code in January, including extra priority for cyclists and pedestrians, MPs say there will be another update specifically focussed on rules for self-driving features. 

It will make clear that motorists must be ready to take back control of vehicles when needed, though while a self-driving mode is active they will be allowed to watch television programmes and films played on the car’s built-in screen.

However, it will continue to be illegal to handle a phone behind the wheel – whether self-driving mode is active or not – with drivers facing a minimum £200 fine and six points on their driving licence if they pick up their device when the car is moving.

The DfT says that when self-driving technology is active, a motorist will legally be allowed to watch a film or video played on the car's interior display screen

The DfT says that when self-driving technology is active, a motorist will legally be allowed to watch a film or video played on the car’s interior display screen

However, ministers says using a phone when self-driving tech is active will still be banned due to the 'greater distraction risk' it poses

However, ministers says using a phone when self-driving tech is active will still be banned due to the ‘greater distraction risk’ it poses

Self-driving tech has been tested and developed on UK roads in recent years. Changes to the Highway Code will make clear that motorists must be ready to take back control of vehicles when requested

Self-driving tech has been tested and developed on UK roads in recent years. Changes to the Highway Code will make clear that motorists must be ready to take back control of vehicles when requested

These measures – which follow a public consultation – were described as an interim measure by the Government to support the early deployment of self-driving vehicles.

A full regulatory framework is expected to be in place by 2025, with the Law Commission already putting its recommendations to Parliament.

Its proposal put forward that when a self-driving system is active, a human in the driver’s seat should legally become a ‘user-in-charge’ – and would avoid prosecution if the vehicle drives itself dangerously or causes a crash.

This would mean immunity from a wide range of offences, such as exceeding speed limits and running red lights when the self-driving feature is in operation.

Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorisation for the technology’s use would become an ‘Authorised Self-Driving Entity’ (ASDE) and be held responsible for the car’s actions in the eyes of the law.

Following a collision, the ASDE would be required to work with a regulatory body, in order to avoid repeat occurrences by providing data to understand who was at fault and where liability lies.

The ADSE could also face sanctions if regulators deem necessary.

A user-in-charge would still be required to retain some duties, such as holding a driving licence, having insurance and ensuring occupants are wearing seatbelts. And they will have to remain within the drink-drive limit. 

The Law Commission in January published recommendations stating that a motorist should NOT be held liable if a vehicle crashes when a self-driving system is active

The Law Commission in January published recommendations stating that a motorist should NOT be held liable if a vehicle crashes when a self-driving system is active

If a collision occurred when self-driving system is active, the Law Commission says the company or body that obtained the authorisation for the tech's use should be held responsible

If a collision occurred when self-driving system is active, the Law Commission says the company or body that obtained the authorisation for the tech’s use should be held responsible

MPs first revealed plans to allow for Automated Lane Keeping Systems to be used on motorways back in August 2020

MPs first revealed plans to allow for Automated Lane Keeping Systems to be used on motorways back in August 2020 

While there are currently no vehicles approved for self-driving on Britain’s roads, the first could be given the go-ahead this year following the German Government’s approval of Mercedes technology on its roads last year.

The DfT announced in April 2021 it would allow hands-free driving in vehicles with lane-keeping technology on congested motorways.

Existing technology on the market such as cruise control and automatic stop/start is classified as ‘assisted’, meaning users must remain fully in control.

However, the arrival of Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) technology – which is already available in the new Mercedes S-Class saloon as part of its Drive Pilot feature – is expected to be given the green light soon.

It will only be legally allowed for use on motorways and only at speeds up to 37mph – such as crawling in slower-moving traffic jams. 

Driven to distraction: Mercedes says that it will accept responsibility in self-driving accidents after German lawmakers gave the brand's Drive Pilot feature the green light on motorways

Driven to distraction: Mercedes says that it will accept responsibility in self-driving accidents after German lawmakers gave the brand’s Drive Pilot feature the green light on motorways

Mercedes is the first manufacturer in the world to meet legal requirements for 'Level 3' self-driving systems. Currently, it has only been signed off for use in Germany

Mercedes is the first manufacturer in the world to meet legal requirements for ‘Level 3’ self-driving systems. Currently, it has only been signed off for use in Germany

The Mercedes system from launch will only be allowed for use within geo-fenced - a virtual perimeter covering a specific area - parts of German motorway and activate at speeds of up to 60km/h (37mph), meaning slow-moving traffic jams like the one pictured in the US

The Mercedes system from launch will only be allowed for use within geo-fenced – a virtual perimeter covering a specific area – parts of German motorway and activate at speeds of up to 60km/h (37mph), meaning slow-moving traffic jams like the one pictured in the US

Transport minister Trudy Harrison said updating to the Highway Code will be a ‘major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles’, which she claimed will ‘revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable’.

What is ALKS and how does it work? 

Automated Lane Keeping System technology would be the most advanced car automation so far seen on UK roads. 

When activated, the ALKS keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything. 

However, the driver must be ready and able to resume driving control within seconds if prompted by the vehicle.

Different manufacturers all have their own systems, but generally it involves a forward-looking camera – usually placed behind the windscreen – and a number of laser sensors, infrared sensors and radar sensors to detect if you’re unintentionally drifting out of lane.

When the sensors detect the car is moving out of lane, it can automatically apply braking to one side of the vehicle to correct the vehicles position in the road.

Rather than subtle braking, some systems can use discreet steering interventions. 

ALKS is designated a Level 3 system by the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe.

This signifies that the person at the wheel is not driving when the automated systems are engaged, but can step in at any time and must take over at the system’s request.

With a Level 3 system activated, the user is allowed to do other things, such as watch a movie or even send a text message, but must retain some level of alertness to what is happening around them.

There are five stages of autonomy for self-driving cars, with Level 5 being full autonomy.

While it is similar to the technology already being used by Tesla, which it calls Autopilot, the US firm’s system is only deemed Level 2 – where drivers are expected to keep their full attention on traffic.

Lane Keeping Assist – a function that’s been available in new cars for over a decade – is also deemed to fall into Level 1 and 2 because it only alerts the driver that they are veering out of their lane and it is up to the user to steer the vehicle.

She went on: ‘This exciting technology is developing at pace right here in Great Britain and we’re ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when it takes to our roads.

‘In doing so, we can help improve travel for all while boosting economic growth across the nation and securing Britain’s place as a global science superpower.’

The development of self-driving vehicles could create around 38,000 new jobs in Britain and be worth £41.7 billion to the economy by 2035, according to the DfT.

Steve Gooding, director of motoring research charity the RAC Foundation, said driverless cars ‘promise a future where death and injury on our roads are cut significantly’ but there is likely to be a ‘long period of transition’ while drivers retain ‘much of the responsibility for what happens’.

He stressed the importance of changes to regulations being communicated to drivers.

‘Vehicle manufacturers and sellers will have a vital role to play in ensuring their customers fully appreciate the capabilities of the cars they buy and the rules that govern them,’ he said.   

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, added: ‘Amending the Highway Code to reflect the pace of technological change will help clarify what motorists can and can’t do when a self-driving feature is engaged, so promoting its safe use.

‘The technology could be available in the UK later this year and, with the right regulations in place, consumers are set to benefit from safer, more efficient journeys while the UK will strengthen its position as a global leader in the deployment of self-driving technology.’

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at vehicle safety and security company Thatcham Research described the changes to the Highway Code as ‘another notable landmark on our journey towards safe Automated Driving in the UK’.  

He told This is Money: ‘Although automation will ultimately make our roads safer, accidents will still occur. 

‘Therefore, data must be recorded that shows who was in control at the time of a collision, however minor, and this data must be openly accessible to all stakeholders, not only the car makers.’ 

Mr Avery said he was happy to see the that the proposed changes will not permit mobile phone use, and instead only allow use of the vehicle’s infotainment system.

‘This means the self-driving system can issue a warning as required and bring the driver back into the loop promptly,’ he explained.

Specific wording changes to the Highway Code will be agreed by key stakeholders including road safety groups, the DfT says.

Currently, the highest level of vehicle autonomy is Level 2, such as Tesla's Autopilot system

Currently, the highest level of vehicle autonomy is Level 2, such as Tesla’s Autopilot system

If given the green light for use here, Mercedes' system - which is called 'Drive Pilot' - could be the first Level 3 vehicle autonomy system used in the UK. Level 5 denotes full autonomy

If given the green light for use here, Mercedes’ system – which is called ‘Drive Pilot’ – could be the first Level 3 vehicle autonomy system used in the UK. Level 5 denotes full autonomy

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