Highway Code to change as Britain awaits ALKS


The slow pace of transition to self-driving has again been highlighted after ministers confirmed changes to the Highway Code to cover ‘the first wave’ of the technology, nearly a year after a consultation.

The changes relate to Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS), which is designed for use on a motorway in slow traffic and enables a vehicle to drive itself in a single lane, up to 37 mph, ‘while maintaining the ability to return control easily and safely to the driver when required’.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said that Britain’s first vehicles approved for self-driving could be ready for use later this year. However, in August 2020, it said ALKS technology was likely to be available in cars entering the UK market from Spring 2021 and later said they could be on the road by the end of that year.

The DfT said the changes will help ensure that the technology will be used safely, ‘explaining clearly that while travelling in self-driving mode, motorists must be ready to resume control in a timely way if they are prompted to – such as when they approach motorway exits’.

The plans also include a change to current regulation, allowing drivers to view content unrelated to driving on built-in display screens while the 'self-driving' vehicle is in control. It will, however, still be illegal to use mobile phones in self-driving mode, which the DfT said reflected research showing that they pose a greater risk of distracting drivers.

Hojol Uddin, partner and head of motoring law at JMW Solicitors, said it would be some time before anyone could watch TV in a self driving car, and that it would have to go through a legislative process in Parliament.

'At present the legislation does not allow the use of moving images in a vehicle whilst driving, and attracts penalty points. If they are to adopt this then the legislation will need to change as well as the Highway Code.'

The consultation on the planned changes ran from 28 April to 28 May 2021 but the DfT has just published the outcome, which it said showed that the majority of respondents were broadly supportive.

Transport minister Trudy Harrison described the move as ‘a major milestone in our safe introduction of self-driving vehicles’.

She said: ‘This exciting technology is developing at pace right here in Great Britain and we’re ensuring we have strong foundations in place for drivers when it takes to our roads.’

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said the changes ‘will help us all understand what we must and must not do as we move forward to an environment where cars drive themselves’.

He added: ‘The final part of the jigsaw is to ensure these amendments are widely communicated to, and understood by, vehicle owners. Vehicle manufacturers and sellers will have a vital role to play in ensuring their customers fully appreciate the capabilities of the cars they buy and the rules that govern them.’

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer, at Thatcham Research, which has previously been critical of ALKS agreed that the move represents ‘another notable landmark on our journey towards safe automated driving in the UK’

He added: ‘We are also pleased to see that the proposed changes will not permit mobile phone use, and instead only allow use of the vehicle’s infotainment system – which means the self-driving system can issue a warning as required and bring the driver back into the loop promptly.’

The DfT said the Government is continuing to develop a full legal framework for self-driving vehicles and that it will also work with industry, regulators and safety organisations to ensure drivers can access information, including online, to help them use the vehicles safely.

It said the Government expects to have a full regulatory framework in place to support the widespread deployment of the technology by 2025.

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