LONDON — The U.K. government announced Wednesday that the first types of “self-driving” cars could be on British roads by the end of 2021, paving the way for the nation to start catching up with the U.S. and other countries.
The Department of Transport said Wednesday that it has “set out” how vehicles equipped with an automated lane-keeping system (ALKS) could legally be defined as self-driving, providing there’s no evidence to challenge the vehicle’s ability to self-drive.
Such systems, which were first used in Japan, can help a vehicle to stay in its lane in slow-moving traffic on motorways (freeways), while allowing the driver to take their hands off the steering wheel but safely take over when necessary. They can’t, however, be relied on to navigate a car from a London borough to a suburb just outside Birmingham, for example.
British Transport Minister Rachel Maclean hailed the announcement as a “major step” for the safe use of self-driving vehicles in the U.K., adding that it could make future journeys greener, easier, and more reliable.
The government said the use of ALKS will be limited to speeds of up to 37 miles per hour on British motorways, meaning it will only really be used in heavy traffic. It did not immediately respond when CNBC asked if it is planning to trial the technology or allow members of the public to use ALKS in their own cars.
Thatcham Research, a firm that carries out safety tests for motor insurance companies, said the ALKS systems can’t be thought of as being automated in their current form.
“They are assisted driving systems as they rely on the driver to take back control,” said Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research, in a blog post on the company’s website.
“Aside from the lack of technical capabilities, by calling ALKS automated our concern also is that the U.K. Government is contributing to the confusion and frequent misuse of assisted driving systems that have unfortunately already led to many tragic deaths,” Avery added.
Stan Boland, CEO and co-founder of Five, a self-driving software company headquartered in the U.K., told CNBC that ALKS is only available as a feature on a reduced set of premium cars, such as certain models of the Honda Legend and the new electric Mercedes S-class. “The immediate impact of ALKS in its current form will be quite modest,” he said.
However, it could pave the way toward full self-driving technology in the future.
“It will lead to later iterations of the regulation that permit increased speed (eventually to 130kph/70mph), more complex maneuvers (like lane changes and overtakes) and engagement of the system on fully-mixed traffic public roads,” said Boland.
“Those later iterations will be much more significant in permitting safe automated driving over long and complex journeys, allowing consumers to read, chat, use their devices and so on whilst being driven,” Boland added.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said that automated driving systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade. As it stands, self-driving systems are far from perfect and Tesla’s “Autopilot” system has resulted in a number of crashes. Tech giants like Google and Apple are also working on their own self-driving technology.
The government said that self-driving technology could eventually help to reduce urban congestion as traffic lights and vehicles will be able to “speak” to each other. It added that connected and autonomous vehicle technology could create around 38,000 new jobs and that the industry could grow to be worth £42 billion ($58 billion) by 2035.
So-called “smart motorways” have been another area of focus for the U.K. government. These stretches of road turn the breakdown lane into a usable traffic lane, and limit speeds or close lanes using overhead electronic signs. They’re designed to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas, but they’ve been criticized after a number of deadly crashes where stationary cars were hit.