Auto-driving cars could be legal on roads by next year, the UK government has said, as it launched a consultation on the technology and the Department for Transport (DfT) issuing a call for evidence into automated lane-keeping systems (ALKS).
Such technology controls cars movements and can keep it in the lane for extended periods, although drivers need to be ready to take back control during the ride.
While the technology for a car to steer itself and stay in a lane – even around curves – already exists in some modern cars, the law says that drivers must remain alert and ready to take over instantly.
ALKS technology has been approved by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), of which the UK is a member.
It set rules to allow the system in motorway traffic jams, at speeds of up to 37mph (60 km/h).
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But the technology could be given the go-ahead for speeds of up to 70mph in the UK, according to the DfT, potentially making long stretches of tedious motorway driving a thing of the past.
Tesla's so-called “Autopilot” is one well-known example. It is considered “level two” on the five defined levels of auto-driving cars. The next step – level three – would not need the driver's attention at all times, and in theory, the driver could do other things such as check email or even watch a movie – until the car prompts them to take over again.
Introducing those systems would require changes to the current legal framework, something the DfT says it is now considering.
The UK government wants to hear from voices within the motoring industry to decide how to safely implement the technology, with the consultation closing on 27 October.
The call for evidence will also look at whether ALKS-enabled cars should be classed as automated, meaning the technology provider rather than the driver would be responsible for safety while the system is engaged.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said automated technologies would be “life-changing” and could prevent 47,000 serious accidents in the next 10 years.