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Hands Free Driving Accelerated

The Department for Transport is investigating the possibility of legalising hands free driving by Spring 2021. A consultation is underway regarding the capability of automated systems to safely take control of vehicles.

Evidence is being requested with the intention of allowing automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) to be used. There is widespread belief that the government consultation findings will confirm that this technology will make driving safer, smoother and easier on our congested roads. If the powers that be are satisfied by the evidence, then changes to the Highway Code and law within Great Britain could be in place by early next year.

Transport Minister Rachel Maclean described the announcement as a “significant step forward for this exciting technology.” She also expressed a desire for UK drivers to be the first benefit from these developments and to attract, “manufacturers to develop and test new technologies” within a world leading environment.

Empowered by tech, drivers will for the first time ever be allowed to delegate the task of driving to their vehicle. ALKS keep the vehicle within its lane by monitoring its positioning in relation to the road and then adjusting accordingly. Regulation, relating to the specific system being reviewed, was passed in June 2020 and it’s likely to be available in cars entering the UK market after the first quarter of 2021.

Manufacturers have already released versions within many existing models. However, Tesla’s “Autopilot” function, for example, is rated at “level two” on the universal five defined levels of self-driving cars. It is currently illegal for motorists to use the function without them keeping their hands on the steering wheel and to maintain their attention at all times. Level three would, in theory, allow the driver to perform other tasks until a point in time when the vehicle requests that they resume control.

Permitting the use of these systems in that way would require changes to the current legal framework, which is the purpose of the DfT’s consultation. Under the proposals, the driver would not be required to keep their hands on the wheel as is currently the case but they would need to remain alert in order to intervene when necessary. Vehicles with this tech installed and active will be defined within the law as “automated vehicles.” The plan is for tech providers to assume liability for the vehicle’s safety performance when the system is engaged, as opposed to the driver.

The government is seeking views from industry on the role of the driver and proposed rules. The speed limit at which the technology could be used will also be set with some proposing a maximum of 37 mph. Yet, a key benefit for drivers would be the ability to handover control on long motorway drives and many will hope that a 70 mph maximum is on the horizon.

Mike Hawes, Chief Executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers was bullish about the technology’s capabilities. He said it will be, “Ready for roll out in new models from as early as 2021, so today’s announcement is a welcome step in preparing the UK for its use, so we can be among the first to grasp the benefits of this road safety revolution.”

Although it may sound like a hair raising experience for the more cautious amongst us, the technology actually has the potential to save the lives of hundreds if not thousands of road users by preventing tired or careless driving. It could be that this innovation has the same if not a greater impact on accident related mortalities as the introduction of seat belts, airbags and braking systems which have come to be viewed as standard on vehicles over past decades. Have your say by contributing to the government consultation on hands free driving before the deadline on October 27th.

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