Insurers and industry bodies urge caution as the government accelerates its plans for the implementation of automated lane keeping technology

Following a call for evidence launched last August, the government has today (28 April 2021) confirmed that automated lane keeping system (ALKS) technology could be legally defined as self-driving, despite insurance industry concerns around safety.

The Department for Transport said that ALKS technology, once awarded “GB type approval” – a certificate of conformity showing that a product meets a minimum set of regulatory, technical and safety requirements – and proven “there is no evidence to challenge the vehicle’s ability to self-drive”, could be used on British roads for the first time later this year.

In conjunction with this, the Highway Code has launched a consultation on rules to ensure ALKS is used safely and responsibly. This ends on 28 May.

The government explained that ALKS is “designed for use on a motorway in slow traffic” and “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”.

Using ALKS, drivers will be able to “hand control” of driving over to their vehicle, which will “constantly monitor speed and keep a safe distance from other cars”.

The government said this technology can improve road safety by reducing human error, which contributes to more than 85% of accidents.

Rachel Maclean, transport minister, said: “This is a major step for the safe use of self-driving vehicles in the UK, making future journeys greener, easier and more reliable, while also helping the nation to build back better.

“But we must ensure that this exciting new tech is deployed safely, which is why we are consulting on what the rules to enable this should look like. In doing so, we can improve transport for all, securing the UK’s place as a global science superpower.”

Potential misuse

However, the insurance industry – led by the ABI and Thatcham Research – is urging caution around the government’s messaging that ALKS is a self-driving technology.

Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research, explained that “there is still a lot of work needed by both legislators and the automotive industry before any vehicle can be classed as automated and allowed safely on to the UK roads.”

He continued: “ALKS as currently proposed by the government are not automated. They are assisted driving systems as they rely on the driver to take back control.

“Aside from the lack of technical capabilities, by calling ALKS automated our concern also is that the UK government is contributing to the confusion and frequent misuse of assisted driving systems that have unfortunately already led to many tragic deaths.

“A widespread and effective ongoing communications campaign led by the automotive industry and supported by insurers and safety organisations is essential if we are going to address current and future misconceptions and misuse.”

Agreeing with Avery’s stance, Gerry Ross, Allianz’s head of commercial motor, described the current situation surrounding ALKS as “a crossroads of public perception”.

He added: “Whilst we welcome improvements to vehicle technology, and there are many exciting advancements on the horizon, we would urge caution with regards to definitions of autonomous driving.

“ALKS is not a fully autonomous system and if introduced on UK roads drivers need to be fully aware of the limitations.

“Although drivers can take their hands off the wheel, they’ll still be required to take over the system within a 10 second period, which means they still need to be alert and aware of their environment.

“We are at a crossroads of public perception and education is going to be a crucial factor in how successful, and safe, the roll out of these types of technologies are.”

Hit the brakes

Jon Dye, director of underwriting, motor at QBE Europe, warned that implementing technology such as ALKS should not be rushed.

“QBE is absolutely behind the development of this technology, but it needs to be done in an environment that is safe and reduces accidents and injuries. We cannot rush into classifying vehicles as automated and putting new technology on the road before all potential risks have been addressed,” he said.

“There is still a lot of work to do to make sure this will ultimately increase safety on our roads rather than having the potential to cause new risks and confusion to drivers.”

The ABI’s assistant director and head of general insurance policy Mark Shepherd added: “While the insurance industry fully supports the development towards more automated vehicles, drivers must not be given unrealistic expectations about a system’s capability.

“It is vital that ALKS, which rely on the driver to take back control, are not classed as automated, but as assisted systems. By keeping this distinction clear we can help ensure that the rules around ALKS are appropriate and put driver and passenger safety first.

“Thatcham Research has identified some concerning scenarios where ALKS may not operate safely without the driver intervening. These need to be addressed in the consultation.”

According to Thatcham Research and the ABI, there are four non-negotiable criteria that need to be met before ALKS can be classified as automated. These are:

  • The vehicle must have the capability, and be allowed through legislation, to safely change lanes to avoid an incident.
  • The vehicle must have the capability to find a ‘safe harbour’ at the side of the road and not stop in a ‘live’ lane.
  • The systems on the vehicle must be able to recognise UK road signs and this needs to be assured by an independent organisation.
  • Data must be made available remotely through a neutral server for any incident to verify who was ‘in charge’ at the time of the incident – the driver or the vehicle.

Big plans

The government and automotive industry, however, have big ambitions for ALKS.

Maclean said: “Self-driving technology in cars, buses and delivery vehicles could spark the beginning of the end of urban congestion, with traffic lights and vehicles speaking to each other to keep traffic flowing, reducing emissions and improving air quality in our towns and cities.

“Not only are automated vehicles expected to improve road safety, the technology could also improve access to transport for people with mobility issues and lead to more reliable public transport services, helping to level-up access to transport in historically disconnected and rural areas.

“As we build back better, connected and autonomous vehicle technology could create around 38,000 new jobs in a UK industry that could be worth £42bn by 2035. Over 80% of these jobs are expected to be in professional, technical and skilled trade occupations.”

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), added: “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 3,900 lives over the next decade through their ability to reduce the single largest cause of road accidents – human error.

“Technologies such as [ALKS] 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.

“The UK is already a world leader in connected and self-driving vehicle innovation and British companies are working on and developing the next generations of automated vehicles.”