Thatcham and ABI give ALKS the red X

23/10/2020
Chris Ames

Researchers and insurers have urged ministers to rethink a plan to introduce self-driving technology onto UK roads early next year ‘because it will put lives at risk’.

Thatcham Research and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said the Government should undertake further work with insurers and the automotive industry to ensure that road safety is fully considered before introducing Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS).

They said both the functionality of ALKS technology and the regulations under which they will operate will mean that they ‘cannot replicate what a competent and engaged human driver can do’ and, in their opinion, are not safe enough to be classified as ‘Automated Driving’.

Despite this, ministers could allow ALKS to be the first Automated Driving technology on UK motorways, at up to speeds of 70 mph, from the spring. This will be the first time a driver can legally take their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road and allow their vehicle to drive for them.

Thatcham Research said it has serious safety concerns about the possibility, ‘because ALKS are largely based on today’s Assisted Driving technology’.

Its director of research, Matthew Avery, said: ‘The Government’s plan threatens road safety. Motorists could feasibly watch television in their car from early next year because they believe their Automated Lane Keeping System can be completely trusted to do the job of a human driver.

‘But that’s not the reality. The limitations of the technology mean it should be classified as Assisted Driving because the driver must be engaged, ready to take over.’

James Dalton, ABI director, general insurance policy, said: ‘The insurance industry is 100% committed to supporting the development of automated vehicles, which have the potential to dramatically improve road safety and revolutionise our transport systems. Vehicles equipped with an automated lane-keeping system are a great step towards developing automated vehicles.

‘However, drivers must not be given unrealistic expectations about a system’s capability. Thatcham Research has identified some concerning scenarios where ALKS may not operate safely without the driver intervening.

'We strongly believe the timings for the introduction of ALKS should be revised to prevent lives being put at risk.’

Thatcham Research said it has identified a number of scenarios in which ALKS technology will not respond in the same way as a competent driver on a UK motorway.

Debris in the carriageway

Debris caused 11 serious accidents on UK motorways in 2019. ‘ALKS technology may not see this type of hazard and will continue in lane at its set speed, potentially causing a serious collision. An attentive driver, however, should recognise debris and attempt to move around it by safely changing lanes.’

Pedestrian carriageway encroachment

Pedestrian casualties are increasing on UK motorways and accounted for 23% of Killed and Seriously Injured (KSI) on those roads in 2019. If a pedestrian encroaches on the carriageway while emerging from a broken-down vehicle, a human driver would either slow to a safe speed or move out of lane to avoid conflict. An ALKS will not be allowed to do this because it is forced to stay in lane and so will continue at motorway speed towards the pedestrian, significantly reducing the ability to brake and avoid a collision.

Motorway lane closure

There were 70 accidents caused by cars driving along a lane closed with a red X on smart motorways in 2019. ALKS may not recognise a closed lane and break the law. If the vehicle does recognise the closed lane, it can only stop in lane under the red X, creating an additional hazard.

Mr Avery added: ‘Current technology requires an attentive driver to be engaged so they can re-take control of the vehicle when required. Automated Lane Keeping System technology would need a quantum leap in development to be able to cope with these very real scenarios safely.

‘With today’s radar sensors only able to monitor a relatively short distance up the carriageway and Automated Lane Keeping System-equipped cars bound by legislation that will not allow them to change lane autonomously, it’s crucial that sensor performance moves on dramatically before a system can be classified as “Automated”.’

Thatcham Research and the ABI will make a joint submission to the Government’s ALKS consultation before it closes next week.

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