Plans for cars to drive themselves on UK motorways as soon as 2021 are unlikely to go ahead after insurers warned government proposals were risking lives and “hugely wrong”.
Cars with the technology to keep in lane, accelerate and brake automatically will be on the road next year, and ministers had proposed that drivers could relinquish control to their vehicles at speeds of up to 70mph on motorways.
However, the Association of British Insurers and the independent Thatcham Research institute have warned the use of automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) would be a severe threat to road safety if the systems were legally classed as “automated”, meaning drivers could take their hands off the steering wheel.
While insurers and Thatcham support the introduction of more automation – and believe fully automated cars would be safer than human drivers – they said the current technology was a “quantum leap” away from what was needed.
The automated system would potentially need to return control to a human driver within three seconds to avert high-speed collisions – but insurers’ research found it takes 15 seconds for the driver to be sufficiently engaged to react to avoid a hazard, roughly 500 metres distance on a motorway.
Cars with ALKS as currently configured will not be able to change lanes, nor react to the red X signal on a smart motorway gantry indicating that a lane is closed ahead. Thatcham also believes they could fail to detect debris or even people on the road in an emergency situation.
Thatcham and the ABI are preparing a joint submission outlining their safety concerns to the government. A consultation on proposals closes next week, ahead of potential changes to motoring legislation in the spring.
Matthew Avery, Thatcham’s director of research, said that while insurers were happy for ALKS to be classified as assisted driving – where the car’s input is always ultimately controlled by a human driver – there were “huge legal and liability problems” as well as safety issues with a system where the driver would relinquish control.
Avery said: “They haven’t thought it through and they’ve got it hugely wrong. From the technology point of view, it’s a small step, but from a philosophical point of view it’s a major step. What we’re missing is how consumers will react and use it.
“The idea of automation is something that insurers wholeheartedly support. But you can’t have steps towards automation – either the car is driving or it isn’t. We can’t have drivers sitting there watching Netflix, supposedly ready to take over.”
He added: “The government’s proposed timeline for the introduction of automated technology must be revised. It simply isn’t safe enough and its introduction will put UK motorists’ lives at risk.”
Ministers have been keen to promote the UK as a world-leading country for the development of autonomous vehicles, taking steps to revamp legislation to allow early adoption of driverless cars.
However, the safety of British motorways has been under particular scrutiny since the introduction of smart motorways, which allow for more traffic by removing the hard shoulder and closing lanes through signals when required. Thatcham said there were 70 accidents in 2019 caused by cars driving along a closed lane, and that cars with ALKS would either miss the signals or simply stop and cause an additional hazard.