Semi-autonomous lane-keeping systems in cars is a ‘nascent technology’

Drivers could be allowed to legally take their hands off the wheel on motorways early next year and a semi-autonomous system take over in the next phase of allowing self-driving cars onto Britain’s roads, the Department for Transport revealed earlier in the week.

Ministers are examining whether new models fitted with an Automated Lane Keeping System should be allowed to use it at speeds of up to 70mph on some of the country’s busiest routes.

Road and vehicle safety experts have waded into the conversation, dubbing the systems a ‘nascent technology’ that may not work on the country’s ‘smart’ motorway network. They added that insurers are also yet to be convinced by the technology.

A 'nascent technology': Vehicle safety experts have warned a roll-out of semi-autonomous 'lane-keeping' systems as early as spring next year could be too soon and that insurers are not convinced ahead of the government's call for evidence announced Tuesday

A 'nascent technology': Vehicle safety experts have warned a roll-out of semi-autonomous 'lane-keeping' systems as early as spring next year could be too soon and that insurers are not convinced ahead of the government's call for evidence announced Tuesday

A ‘nascent technology’: Vehicle safety experts have warned a roll-out of semi-autonomous ‘lane-keeping’ systems as early as spring next year could be too soon and that insurers are not convinced ahead of the government’s call for evidence announced Tuesday

ALKS systems are classified as Level 3 vehicle automation. This means drivers do not have to be in charge of the vehicle for a prolonged period, but must be ready to take charge with warning.

If given the green light by the Government, it will be the first time motorists will be allowed to use technology that does not require a driver to monitor the road and their surroundings, instead freeing them up to do things such as sending a text message or watching a film – so long as they could easily re-take charge of the vehicle.

In a call for evidence, the Government suggests the technology will be available in cars from the spring and asks for views on how it should be legislated.

They believe it will make roads safer by cutting accidents caused by people changing lanes.

However, Thatcham Research, one of the UK’s leading vehicle safety firms. said that ‘serious questions remain in regard to system capability’.

Matthew Avery, research director at the company, explained: ‘The fundamental principle has to be: can the automated system emulate competent motorway driving behaviours? Or put another way, can the machine now better the human?

‘At present, UK insurers are not convinced,’ he warned.

The government has launched a call for evidence over the use of the ALKS system on UK roads

The government has launched a call for evidence over the use of the ALKS system on UK roads

The government has launched a call for evidence over the use of the ALKS system on UK roads 

The announcement by the DfT outlined plans for ALKS to potentially enable hands-free driving on UK motorways as early as spring 2021, though there will be big questions about the dependability of the systems.

ALKS are categorised as ‘Level 3’ autonomy and can take over control of a vehicle, keeping it in lane so the driver doesn’t need to have any input.

Current UK laws mean drivers can use technology such as lane assist systems, but must remain engaged in the task of driving and aware of their environment – in line with Level 2.

Level 3 signifies that the person at the wheel is not driving when the automated systems are engaged, but can step in at any time and must take over at the system’s request.

The highest is Level 5, which denotes entirely driverless vehicles. 

If given the green light, Automated Lane Keep Systems will be the first instance of Level 3 vehicle autonomy in the UK

If given the green light, Automated Lane Keep Systems will be the first instance of Level 3 vehicle autonomy in the UK

If given the green light, Automated Lane Keep Systems will be the first instance of Level 3 vehicle autonomy in the UK

Currently, the highest level of vehicle autonomy being used on UK roads is Tesla's Autopilot, which is classified as Level 2

Currently, the highest level of vehicle autonomy being used on UK roads is Tesla's Autopilot, which is classified as Level 2

Currently, the highest level of vehicle autonomy being used on UK roads is Tesla’s Autopilot, which is classified as Level 2

Speaking about the Level 3 systems, Avery said: ‘Such technology uses sensors and software to control a car’s movements, keeping it in lane at speeds of up to 70mph for extended periods. Although drivers must be ready to take back control.

‘It’s paramount therefore that these initial systems have sophisticated driver monitoring functions to identify if a motorist has become too far removed from the task of driving. 

‘This is especially important if the vehicle cannot deal with unplanned situations or is about to transition from the motorway to roads where Automated Driving will no longer be supported.

‘If a driver does not respond, the system should be able to assess the road conditions, just as a human would, and decide on the safest action to keep the car’s occupants and those around them safe.’

Avery went on to explain that if ministers were to give the technology the green light, it would need to make widespread changes to current regulations that do not allow these vehicles to change lanes without driver input.

If not, he warned it could result in a ‘new hazard’ being introduced to our busiest roads. 

Automated Lane Keeping Systems will be able to take over driving on motorways, suggesting it will allow users to do other things, such as watch a movie on their phone or read the newspaper

Automated Lane Keeping Systems will be able to take over driving on motorways, suggesting it will allow users to do other things, such as watch a movie on their phone or read the newspaper

Automated Lane Keeping Systems will be able to take over driving on motorways, suggesting it will allow users to do other things, such as watch a movie on their phone or read the newspaper

Avery also questioned that – even with UN approval – if ALKS would be able to cope with ‘the idiosyncrasies of UK Smart Motorways’, which have variable speed limits and gives Highways England the powers to shut active lanes immediately by displaying red X markings on overhead gantries. 

‘Liability is another issue that is yet to be addressed satisfactorily. There are huge implications from a legal and insurance perspective as liability shifts from driver to car,’ Avery added.

‘User confusion, and the scale of the education programme required to avoid it, is also a major challenge.

‘ALKS technology is based on today’s Assisted Driving tech – which has already been shown to have safety limitations. 

Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said automated technology could make driving 'safer, smoother and easier for motorists'

Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said automated technology could make driving 'safer, smoother and easier for motorists'

Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said automated technology could make driving ‘safer, smoother and easier for motorists’

‘There is no clarity on how ALKS will considerably increase today’s performance. Unless these concerns can be addressed, it is the Insurer view that these systems should be classified as driver assistance systems and not be listed as automated.’  

The Department for Transport said in its statement that it wants to determine ‘whether vehicles using this technology should be legally defined as an automated vehicle, which would mean the technology provider would be responsible for the safety of the vehicle when the system is engaged, rather than the driver’.

Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said: ‘Automated technology could make driving safer, smoother and easier for motorists and the UK should be the first country to see these benefits, attracting manufacturers to develop and test new technologies.

‘The UK’s work in this area is world leading and the results from this call for evidence could be a significant step forward for this exciting technology.’ 

Road safety charity Brake said that automation may reduce mistakes on the roads and save lives but added that it ‘will take time’. 

‘With five UK road deaths a day, we need the Government to act now on speed, drink-driving and enforcement,’ the campaign group posted to Twitter. 

More than 50 countries, including EU member states, have agreed common regulations for vehicles with ALKS, United Nations rule makers announced in June.

But strict requirements suggested by the UN include a use at maximum speeds of 60kph (37mph), a data-storing ‘black box’ being on board, the driver wearing a seatbelt at all times and the device only activating on roads equipped with a central reservation dividing traffic moving in opposite directions, where pedestrians and cyclists are prohibited.

More than 50 countries, including EU member states, have agreed common regulations for vehicles with ALKS, United Nations rule makers announced in June

More than 50 countries, including EU member states, have agreed common regulations for vehicles with ALKS, United Nations rule makers announced in June

More than 50 countries, including EU member states, have agreed common regulations for vehicles with ALKS, United Nations rule makers announced in June

Discussing the arrival of the ALKS on BBC Radio 5 Live, Daniel Luiz, chief executive of Zenzic, which represents the automated driving industry, said the sector is now at a ‘tipping point’ where the technology and the vehicles are evolving quickly but are ‘dependent on the infrastructure to reach full maturity’.

Describing how the Government intends to review the implementation of the system, he said: ‘There’s a lot of discussion about this and a lot of exciting research on the human behaviours and how the vehicle and person interact, when it’s safe to hand over and how to get the attention engaged so that when the driver wants to hand back responsibility the driver is attentive enough to do that.

‘All of that is being addressed and woven into the work that’s being done by government in close collaboration with industry, insurers and manufacturers to make sure that what we end up with is a safety system. 

‘If it isn’t safe, we won’t unlock the productivity benefits, the inclusion benefits of getting people mobile that currently aren’t and also the impact on the environment that these systems give us.’

When activated, an Automated Lane Keep System keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything

When activated, an Automated Lane Keep System keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything

When activated, an Automated Lane Keep System keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything

He said the timeline for its introduction is ‘a transition’, adding: ‘There are steps towards the point where everything is driverless and we have a nirvana of mobility, but that is way off.

‘We’re not talking about using these vehicles in complex urban environments. We’re talking about a fairly simple one-dimensional [scenario]. 

‘The good thing about motorways is they go in one direction. Drivers and users of motorways are rule followers; it’s a much more controlled and essentially simpler en environment than anywhere else. That’s why it makes a good place to be starting to try out a bit of the system.’

He went on to admit that there are fundamental engineering problems that need to be outlined first. 

‘There are processes we need to go through,’ he told listeners. 

‘We know that when we’re driving on the motorway we look over our shoulder, we indicate, we monitor our speed. Those are the tick list of things a machine can do as well.

‘There are things that aren’t in our natural portfolio when we’re drivers. If we start to become an operator or a user, then there are additional questions that need to be asked. For example, attention. 

‘A way of solving the problem with attention – when the car wants to hand back control it shouts very loudly at you and wakes you up. It doesn’t let you do anything to steer or control the vehicle until it is sure you are woken up and attentive, and then it hands over. 

‘That needs to be tested and certified before it is safe and allowed to be used.’

What lawyers have had to say about the introduction of the technology 

Peter Shervington, automotive lawyer at Eversheds Sutherland

‘There has been hesitation creeping into the industry in the past 18 months as a series of well publicised fatalities and incidents brought home some of the legal and moral challenges of driverless cars. 

‘These risk putting off both industry, concerned about the scale of risk and liability being transferred from drivers, and consumers, left wary that systems which promise a chance to read or snooze might in reality require a state of constant readiness.

‘The consultation sensibly focusses on deployment of automation in the very specific area of slow speed lane manoeuvres – a potential easy win which might well bring the wider public closer to accepting automation as part of their everyday driving experience. 

‘Many of the same thorny legal issues arise here though: at what precise point does legal responsibility for the behaviour of the vehicle switch from driver to the automated system? What residual responsibility and liability do they retain once the vehicle is in automated mode? How much warning do they need of control being handed back? How is responsibility addressed if the driver does not respond and what penalties should follow if a transition demand is ignored? 

‘The call for evidence is hoping to create a consensus around these issues and more. If it succeeds, a socially acceptable driverless world may be one step closer.’

Simon Parry, partner and patent attorney at Mewburn Ellis  

‘As the name suggests, ALKS technology is configured to control a vehicle’s steering to keep it in the correct lane, and when allied to adaptive cruise control systems of the type already available, which maintain a safe distance from vehicles in front, can facilitate hands-free driving for limited periods. 

‘For the time being, such systems will still require the driver to remain alert, to be able to take back control if necessary. 

‘It is envisaged that if given the go-ahead, ALKS systems could offer advantages to drivers in reducing the strain of long motorway journeys, which some industry experts claim could significantly increase safety.

‘There are thorny legal issues regarding who is responsible for the safe operation of a vehicle under the control of ALKS. 

‘The call for evidence will need to consider whether a vehicle driving with ALKS should be considered to be automated, which could pass responsibility for safety from the driver to the system provider when the system is in use.’

Which car brands are currently using lane assistance in their vehicles? 

Elon Musk’s firm Tesla are one of the companies leading the way in terms of driver-less technology.

The American firm has its Autopilot system on cars such as the Model 3, Model S and Model X.

What is ALKS and how does it work? 

Automated Lane Keeping System technology would be the most advanced car automation so far seen on UK roads. 

When activated, the ALKS keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything. 

However, the driver must be ready and able to resume driving control within seconds if prompted by the vehicle.

Different manufacturers all have their own systems, but generally it involves  a forward-looking camera, usually behind the windshield, laser sensors, infrared sensors and radar sensors to detect if you’re unintentionally drifting out of lane.

When the sensors detect the car is moving out of lane, it can automatically apply braking to one side of the vehicle to correct the vehicles position in the road.

Rather than subtle braking, some systems can use discreet steering interventions. 

ALKS is designated a Level 3 system by the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe.

This signifies that the person at the wheel is not driving when the automated systems are engaged, but can step in at any time and must take over at the system’s request.

With a Level 3 system activated, the user is allowed to do other things, such as watch a movie or even send a text message, but must retain some level of alertness to what is happening around them.

There are five stages of autonomy for self-driving cars, with Level 5 being full autonomy.

While it is similar to the technology already being used by Tesla, which it calls Autopilot, the US firm’s system is only deemed Level 2 – where drivers are expected to keep their full attention on traffic.

Lane Keeping Assist – a function that’s been available in new cars for over a decade – is also deemed to fall into Level 1 and 2 because it only alerts the driver that they are veering out of their lane and it is up to the user to steer the vehicle.

However, current UK laws mean the highest level of automation allowed under a classification system by the  UN’s Economic Commission for Europe is Level 2 – which drivers must be paying attention to driving at all times. 

According to Tesla, Autopilot enables your car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane. But it says on its UK website that the current ‘Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous’. 

Germany recently banned Tesla from using what a court called ‘misleading advertising statements’ relating to the capabilities of the firm’s driver assistance systems and to autonomous driving, a Munich judge ruled last month.

Tesla can appeal the ruling, which will remove all ads referencing the capabilities of its Autopilot feature in the country where Elon Musk intends to set up shop in Europe with a new Gigafactory.

The case was brought by Germany’s Wettbewerbszentrale, an industry sponsored body tasked with policing anti-competitive practices, and the ruling garnered the backing of vehicle safety experts who have warned that ‘over-reliance on the Autopilot system can be catastrophic’.

German manufacturer BMW has also been leading the way in the driver-less technology field.

In 2016, it announced its seventh-generation BMW 5-series would feature technology which allows motorists to take their hands off the steering wheel – even at high speeds – for up to 30 seconds. Again, the system is not allowed in the UK.

Nissan has its ProPilot Assist on the electronic-powered Nissan Leaf and its Infiniti QX50, while Volvo has Pilot Assist across all models.

Volkswagen and Audi offer systems that will warn the driver if they drift out of lane.

Mercedes and Ford are just some of the manufacturers to offer active lane keeping which actually steers the car back into its lane. 

In America, Cadillac has its Super Cruise on the Cadillac CT6, but the system is only for available only on limited-access highways that have already been mapped.

But it’s not all top end vehicles that have semi-automated systems.

Earlier this year Kia announced its Picanto, priced between £10,000 and £13,000 will feature technology that will: warn of and help avoid forward collisions; detect pedestrian, cyclist and vehicles; warn of cars in the blind spot; keep you in lane; and warn if you are starting to nod off.

According to figures in June, more than 60 companies have applied to test autonomous vehicles in California U.S. alone.

Elon Musk last year promised a fleet of autonomous robotaxis would start operating in 2020.

But recently he has said he hopes to deploy the system with humans monitoring it in early 2021, depending on regulatory approval.

Earlier this year Kia announced its Picanto, priced between £10,000 and £13,000 will feature technology that will: warn of and help avoid forward collisions; detect pedestrian, cyclist and vehicles; warn of cars in the blind spot; keep you in lane; and warn if you are starting to nod off

Earlier this year Kia announced its Picanto, priced between £10,000 and £13,000 will feature technology that will: warn of and help avoid forward collisions; detect pedestrian, cyclist and vehicles; warn of cars in the blind spot; keep you in lane; and warn if you are starting to nod off

Earlier this year Kia announced its Picanto, priced between £10,000 and £13,000 will feature technology that will: warn of and help avoid forward collisions; detect pedestrian, cyclist and vehicles; warn of cars in the blind spot; keep you in lane; and warn if you are starting to nod off

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