Self-driving cars could be on our roads soon

 The government believes that cars with self-driving technology could be on our roads soon.

Display of automated lane keeping system

The self-driving systems it’s referring to are automated lane-keeping systems, or ALKS. These are automated systems that can take control of a vehicle at low speeds.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) and Thatcham Research, the UK’s insurance research centre, have questioned the government’s move.

They say the systems aren’t fully self-driving and that they put drivers at risk. This is because when ALKS is enabled drivers might assume that the vehicle is in full control of itself.

And the implications on car insurance remain unclear.

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How do self-driving cars work?

Self-driving cars use technology to replicate the behaviour of humans.

This tech includes radar, light detection and ultrasonic sensors that can spot other vehicles and pedestrians and understand signs and road lanes.

The idea behind self-driving cars is to create vehicles that drive themselves better and safer than people drive them.

Science fiction has long had us dreaming of vehicles that literally drive themselves – dropping you off at work before popping home and parking themselves, for example.

But for now it’s more about being able to take your hand off the steering wheel without losing the ability to resume complete control when you want to.


What will ALKS do in self-driving cars?

ALKS is an example of driver assistance technology. It keeps the car in-lane on the motorway at low speeds, controlling its movements for extended periods.

Driver assistance technology is common in most new cars. One example is adaptive cruise control, which monitors the vehicle in front and controls the car so it keeps at a fixed distance. 

Other examples include parking assistance and blind spot warnings.

But none of these systems has been classed as ‘self-driving’, and they were always designed to support drivers rather than replace them.

ALKS, however, is classed as ‘self-driving’ technology, giving drivers the choice to delegate control of their car.


Should ALKS be defined as self-driving?

The government has decided that ALKS can legally be defined as self-driving.

But Matthew Avery, of Thatcham Research, says: 

“Automated lane-keeping systems as currently proposed by the government are not automated. They are assisted driving systems as they rely on the driver to take back control.

“Aside from the lack of technical capabilities, by calling ALKS ‘automated’ our concern also is that the UK government is contributing to the confusion and frequent misuse of assisted driving systems that have unfortunately already led to many tragic deaths.

“A widespread and effective ongoing communications campaign led by the automotive industry and supported by insurers and safety organisations is essential if we are going to address current and future misconceptions and misuse.”


Is ALKS in self-driving cars safe?

The government believes that the system could improve road safety by reducing human error, which contributes to more than 85% of accidents.

But there are still uncertainties around the self-driving tech.

Thatcham and the ABI believe there are four key areas the government needs to change before ALKS can be classed as self-driving and safe:

  • The vehicle must be able to change lanes to avoid an incident.
  • The vehicle must be able to stop in a safe space or ‘safe harbour’ and not stop in a busy lane.
  • The vehicle must be able to recognise road signs.
  • Data from the vehicle must be available to work out who was in charge – either the vehicle or the driver – if there’s an accident.


How will self-driving cars impact insurance?

It remains to be seen how fully-autonomous vehicles might change the way car insurance companies handle claims and policies.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 says that insurance companies are liable for damages caused by an autonomous vehicle they cover.

In theory, having self-driving cars everywhere might make our roads safer, reducing the risk of an accident and making insurance prices cheaper.

But, given that autonomous technology is expensive, and there’s still the opportunity for human error, we could see insurance costs go up for self-driving cars.