Britain aims To Become The first country to let drivers take their hands off the wheel on motorways. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, is pressing ahead with his ambition to clear the way for driverless cars.
Senior officials at the Department for Transport (DfT) told insurance industry chiefs on Tuesday that lane-keeping technology could permit drivers to watch a film, send texts or check emails at the wheel from the summer.
However, the government is stepping back from a plan to allow this at 70mph and signalled that it will apply in stop-start motorway traffic at speeds of up to 37mph.
The technology, the third of five stages leading to cars that have no driver, was approved in United Nations regulations that came into force in Britain on Friday. It is confined to roads where traffic moving in opposite directions is physically separated and no pedestrians or cyclists are allowed.
It follows a “call for evidence” in which the government asked for responses to the idea of drivers “watching a film, checking emails or SMS, or accessing other audio, video or written content”.
Shapps has the authority under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 to designate which vehicles are capable “at least in some circumstances or situations, of safely driving themselves”. None yet exists, but new Teslas and a Mercedes S-class due to arrive late this year are expected to be among the first to be eligible.
They will have an automated lane-keeping system (ALKS), which uses radar and cameras to keep a car on track. It is the latest in a line of advances such as lane assist and adaptive cruise control, which matches a car’s speed to that of the vehicle in front.
The AA and Thatcham Research, the motor insurance industry’s research body, have highlighted alarming weaknesses in the technology. It cannot change lanes to avoid trouble, but slows the car to a halt. The on-board display instantly stops showing entertainment in an emergency, but a distracted driver may still struggle to react.
The safety of the motorway network has already been called into question. Last week a coroner sought a review into smart motorways, which rely on technology to make up for the lack of a hard shoulder, after the deaths of two drivers on the M1.
Insurers fear Shapps, who owns a Tesla, will be swayed by trying to position the UK as a world leader. He has said he wants Britain to be “the first country to see these benefits”. The insurers stress that they are not objecting to drivers using the new lane-keeping system, but want a human to be in charge at all times until the arrival of fully autonomous vehicles.
Lilian Greenwood, a Labour member of the transport select committee, said ALKS was not yet ready to take over: “It simply isn’t safe for drivers to ignore the road and do other things while the technology is unable to respond safely to the unexpected.”
The DfT said: “We have sought views on the use of the automated lane-keeping system to pave the way towards introducing it safely on UK roads. No decision has yet been made on whether to allow ALKS to operate up to 70mph.”