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Alexa, drive me home. The competition to produce self-driving vehicles

There is competition across the globe to produce the first self-driving vehicle. There has been lots in the news about the UK's keenness to be seen to be leading the way. We even introduced legislation three years ago, the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018, which governs inter alia the insurance position. 

First step to self-driving vehicles on our roads 

The Government has recently announced that vehicles with automated lane-keeping systems (ALKS) technology can be defined as "self-driving". The Government confirmed that drivers will not be required to monitor the road or keep their hands on the wheel when the vehicle is driving itself. They will, however, need to be able to take over control within 10 seconds. 

If they fail to do so, the vehicle will put the hazard lights on and slowly come to a stop. The maximum speed limit for the software to be used will be 37 miles per hour. 

Automated vehicle levels

There are different levels of automated vehicle. The Government's announcement indicates that level three automated vehicles will potentially be allowed on the roads at the end of the year. ALKS are categorised as 'Level 3' autonomy and can take over control of a vehicle, keeping it in lane so the driver doesn't need to have any input. 

In theory, a driver could check their e-mails or watch a film until the vehicle prompts them to take over again. 

So called safety benefits

Lots has been said about the so called safety benefits. For example, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said: “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,” said chief executive Mike Hawes.

Automated vehicles safety concerns

There have been a few high profile negative incidents involving autonomous vehicles, some of which included drivers who became too trusting of the software. For example, in 2018, in the United States, a driver was playing a video game before it drove into a concrete barrier.

Thatcham Research, which conducts safety tests for motor insurers, urged caution over defining ALKS as 'self-driving', as the government has done.

"ALKS as currently proposed by the government are not automated," said Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research. "They are assisted driving systems as they rely on the driver to take back control. Consumers will expect the car to do the job of a driver, which current models can't do."

The Highway Code is being updated to reflect the changes. Worryingly, the draft states: "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". 

Where next? 

Although the Government is committed to developing automated vehicles as quickly as possible and allowing them on our roads, it remains to be seen whether the rapid desired pace is likely to endanger lives. There will be a need for education about the software available. 

It is, unfortunately, highly likely that we will see an increase in serious injuries and fatalities. We know that technology is an enabler but often fails with no human oversight at all. If one considers the problems even with running a computer, it is difficult to see how we will, in the near future, get to a place where a vehicle drives a young family many miles on a motorway without any human input. 

It is also likely that the criminal law will need to be reformed. At present, if a driver takes their eyes off the road or admits to not paying attention, it is likely that they will be prosecuted for an offence such as driving without due care and attention.  

Clearly, we all want to see a safer and more environmentally friendly world. However, it is likely that there is a long way to go with many obstacles along the way before that becomes even a potential reality. 

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in helping people following road accidents at our dedicated serious injury section

"Self-driving" vehicles could be allowed on UK roads by the end of this year, the government has said.

The Department for Transport said automated lane-keeping systems (ALKS) would be the first type of hands-free driving legalised.”