Rule change could allow self-driving cars in UK by end of 2021

The Department for Transport (DfT) has outlined plans for cars equipped with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) to be legally defined as self-driving, which would legalise hands-off operation of such cars at low speeds. 

Essentially, if approved, the move represents the first step towards allowing certain cars to drive themselves on UK roads. Some cars are already fitted with ALKS, but it’s illegal for a driver to remove their hands from the wheel, because these cars aren’t classified as self-driving. 

If they’re granted type approval and there’s no evidence “to challenge the vehicle’s ability to self-drive”, these cars could be allowed to operate independently of the driver on motorways at speeds of less than 37mph by the end of the year. 

The DfT defines ALKS as those which “enable a vehicle to drive itself in a single lane, while maintaining the ability to easily and safely return control to the driver when required”. 

According to the DfT, the technology could improve road safety; it cites human error as a contributing factor in more than 85% of accidents. 

The roll-out of the new regulation is contingent on alterations to the Highway Code which will “ensure the first wave of this technology is used safely and responsibly”. A consultation on these changes will conclude on 28 May.

Looking forward, the DfT anticipates that autonomous driving and vehicle connectivity technology will serve to ease congestion in urban areas (and thereby reduce emissions), improve efficiency, improve the accessibility of public transport services and – by 2035 – create around 38,000 jobs in the UK.

Commenting on the announcement, SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said: “The automotive industry welcomes this vital step to permit the use of automated vehicles on UK roads, which will put Britain in the vanguard of road safety and automotive technology.

“Automated driving systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3900 lives over the next decade through their ability to reduce the single largest cause of road accidents: human error.

“Technologies such as Automated Lane Keeping Systems will pave the way for higher levels of automation in future – and these advances will unleash Britain’s potential to be a world leader in the development and use of these technologies, creating essential jobs while ensuring our roads remain among the safest on the planet.”