UK adrift on self-driving car targets

A long-standing Tory commitment to have ‘fully self-driving cars’ on UK roads by last year has not been met, the Government has admitted.

Ministers have also missed a more recent target of having Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) – the lowest level of ‘self-driving’ vehicles – on the road by the end of 2021.

In 2017, the then chancellor, Philip Hammond, grabbed headlines with an announcement that the Government planned to have fully driverless cars without a safety driver by 2021.

That year’s Autumn Budget stated: ‘The government wants to see fully self-driving cars, without a human operator, on UK roads by 2021. The government will therefore make world-leading changes to the regulatory framework, such as setting out how driverless cars can be tested without a human safety operator.’

In February 2021, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it was developing a process to allow advanced trials to take place of driverless cars without a safety driver in or outside the vehicle.

It said that this ‘demonstrates that the government is on track to meet its commitment to have fully self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2021’.

However, the DfT has now admitted to Transport Network that no such trials have taken place. Despite the 2021 date having previously been described as a government commitment, it said this ’reflects the current readiness of the technology relative to the road complexity and environmental conditions of the UK rather than any regulatory barriers that exist’.

The current DfT code of practice on automated vehicle trialling, which was updated as part of the 2019 announcement, points out that under current UK law organisations trialling self-driving vehicles ‘will need to ensure that they have a driver or operator, in or out of the vehicle, who is ready, able, and willing to resume control of the vehicle’.

As part of that update, the DfT said a process was being developed to support more advanced trials, which would not be required to meet this stipulation.

The DfT said the Centre for Connected and Automated Vehicles (CCAV) has a process in place to support advanced trials of automated vehicles, consisting of a specialist multi-disciplinary team who work with the trialling organisation on their particular needs.

It added that the CCAV has worked with one trialling organisation to get a ‘novel’ automated vehicle without conventional controls on the road, and is currently working with another to get their unmanned vehicle (with the safety driver external to the vehicle) registered for UK public road use.

Ministers aim lower - and miss

With the UK struggling to deliver 'fully self-driving' cars, in April 2021 the DfT announced that the ‘first types of self-driving vehicles could be on UK roads by the end of this year’.

This was a reference to the controversial ALKS, which ‘enables a vehicle to drive itself in a single lane, while maintaining the ability to easily and safely return control to the driver when required’. In August 2020, the DfT said ALKS technology was likely to be available in cars entering the UK market from Spring 2021.

The DfT said last year that ALKS ‘could legally be defined as self-driving, as long as they receive GB type approval and there is no evidence to challenge the vehicle’s ability to self-drive'.

It also launched consultation proposals to introduce a new section of The Highway Code rules regarding rules for the safe use of automated vehicles on motorways.

Former transport minister Rachel Maclean described the announcement as ‘a major step for the safe use of self-driving vehicles in the UK’.

Responding to the announcement, AA president Edmund King said that ALKS should be classified as “Assisted Driving” technology and is a world away from “self-driving”.

The DfT has not published the response to its consultation on the Highway Code. It told Transport Network that decisions on type ‘approval will be made on a case-by-case basis with the data available at the time’.

In 2019, a new regulation on ALKS was adopted by 60 countries, including the UK, – the first binding international regulation on 'level 3' vehicle automation.

Last month the KBA, Germany’s federal motor transport authority, gave Mercedes Benz approval under the regulation for its level 3 self-driving system.

AA president Edmund King told Transport Network: ‘Whilst no doubt some technological elements of driverless cars or automatic lane keeping systems will bring in safety benefits, we should not be encouraging drivers to take their hands off the wheel until these systems are fail-safe.

‘I think it is pragmatic that perhaps these over-optimistic targets have not been met as the car occupants’ safety must always be paramount.’

A DfT spokesperson said: ‘Government investment, our open regulatory regime, and world-class research base have made the UK a global leader in connected and automated vehicle technology development.

‘Following the success of multiple self-driving trials in the last 12 months, we will continue to support the development of the UK’s self-driving capability in 2022 and beyond.’

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