Safety campaigners issue driverless cars warning

‘We shouldn’t be in a race to take drivers’ hands off the wheel’: Safety campaigners issue driverless cars warning and say there are ‘gaps’ in the technology as Grant Shapps claims it will be SAFER than driving

  • DfT announced this morning that the first types of ‘self-driving vehicles’ could be on UK roads by end of 2021
  • Automated Lane Keeping Systems would permit hands-free driving on motorways at speeds up to 37mph
  • Ministers say the tech could ease congestion, cut emissions and reduce accidents caused by human error 
  • Consultation to take place to make changes to Highway Code to allow these systems to be used on the road
  • Insurers and safety experts say users may misinterpret its lower level of driver assistance as fully automated

Motoring groups today urged caution over plans to legalise driverless cars by the end of the year amid warnings over ‘gaps’ in the ‘lane keeping’ technology which would take over the controls and steering.

The Department for Transport announced today that it will allow hands-free driving in vehicles on motorways with slow traffic, at speeds of up to 37mph, but experts have told of various ‘challenges’ presented by the idea.

Officials set out how a vehicle with an automated lane keeping system (ALKS) could legally be used by a driver not paying attention, as long as there is no evidence to ‘challenge the ability’ of it to be used autonomously.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders insisted the changes could stop up to 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives in a decade, but the AA has warned against a ‘race to take drivers’ hands off the wheel’.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said self-driving cars will not be introduced unless they are safer than having drivers behind the wheel, adding: ‘It will be safer than people driving and if it’s not, then we won’t do it.’ 

The Department for Transport said it is to launch a consultation for how Automated Lane Keeping Systems and other ‘self-driving’ vehicle technology can be written into the Highway Code to ensure it can be used safely and responsibly by users

Currently, the highest level of vehicle autonomy being used on UK roads is Tesla’s Autopilot, which is classified as Level 2. If given the green light, Automated Lane Keeping Systems will be the first instance of Level 3 vehicle autonomy in the UK

AA president Edmund King said: ‘Without doubt vehicle safety technology can save lives, but we shouldn’t be in a race to take drivers’ hands off the wheel. 

‘There are still gaps in how this technology detects and stops if the vehicle is involved in a collision. There are still question marks over how drivers will be fully informed how these systems work. 

How do self-driving cars work – and when could they be on our roads? 

– What is this all about?  The Government has set out how a vehicle with an automated lane keeping system (ALKS) could legally be classed as self-driving.

– What does that mean for motorists?  Drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel and stop paying attention to the road.

– When and where will this happen?  It will be permitted later this year on motorways with traffic jams. Cars will have a maximum speed of 37mph in self-driving mode.

– How does ALKS work?  The system varies between manufacturers, but generally involves the use of cameras and sensors to keep a vehicle moving in its lane without hitting other road users.

– Does someone need to be in the driver’s seat for it to operate?  Yes. The system will only work if someone is behind the wheel with their seatbelt fastened.

– What happens if there is an incident?  The Department for Transport says that when ALKS detects an ‘imminent collision risk’, it carries out an ’emergency manoeuvre’ which can involving braking or evasive action.

– Is it safe?  The Government claims it can ‘improve road safety by reducing human error’. The system also requires a driver to be able to take back control within 10 seconds if a problem is detected.

– What happens if the driver fails to respond?  The car will slow down, its hazard lights will begin flashing and its infotainment system will turn off.

– What has been the response to the Government’s announcement?  The automotive industry has described the policy as a welcome boost, but some motoring groups are concerned about whether enough testing has been done to allow hands-free driving.

– Does this mean driverless cars have arrived?  Not quite. Experts believe it will be several years before fully autonomous vehicles are allowed on UK roads, with some questioning whether they will ever be a reality.

‘More needs to be done to rigorously test these systems before they are used on UK roads.’ 

The system must pass the UK approval process through the Vehicle Certification Agency, which has set a benchmark that the car must stop for ‘detectable collisions’, without a clear definition yet of what this is.

For example, if an ALKS vehicle is involved in a crash which causes the airbags to activate, it clearly must stop. But if a motorcyclist lightly clips the car and is injured, it is unclear whether the car will know to stop.

In addition, ALKS cannot move the car out of its lane, so if it puts on the brakes when approaching debris or an animal, it is not clear whether the car can calculate if this would cause any vehicles behind it to crash.

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said humans are ‘invariably the weak link’ when it comes to safe driving, but warned of ‘challenges’ when transferring control between technology and the person behind the wheel.

‘There is a risk of situations in which drivers over-rely on the automated system, expecting it to deal with events for which it is neither intended nor capable,’ he said.

Without the need to keep their hands on the wheel, motorists using ALKS could go on the internet, watch TV or read a newspaper. They would have to use on-board ‘infotainment’ screens for online content – with mobile phones and tablets still banned during journeys.

And they would have to be in a position to resume control of the car within ten seconds in case of problems. If the driver failed to act, the vehicle would come to a stop.

‘What you describe things as is incredibly important, so people don’t use them inappropriately,’ said David Williams, managing director of underwriting at AXA Insurance.

‘I genuinely believe the world will be a safer place with autonomous vehicles and I really don’t want that derailed,’ he added.

Mark Shepherd, head of general insurance policy at the Association of British Insurers, said: ‘While the insurance industry fully supports the development towards more automated vehicles, drivers must not be given unrealistic expectations about a system’s capability.

‘It is vital that Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS), which rely on the driver to take back control, are not classed as automated, but as assisted systems. By keeping this distinction clear we can help ensure that the rules around ALKS are appropriate and put driver and passenger safety first.’ 

Jim Holder, editorial director of What Car? magazine, added: ‘Revising the Highway Code to take into account self-driving technology is an important first step in having the right legislative framework in place to allow driverless testing and driverless vehicles to operate on UK roads. 

Mercedes has a system capable of Level 3 automation. Its ‘Drive Pilot’ system can be activated by the driver via controls on the steering wheel.  The system uses a combination of cameras, radar and ‘Lidar’ (light detection and ranging optical sensors which measure distance and speed) along with precise Wi-Fi positioning and a high-definition digital map to ‘drive itself’

‘However, past events have shown just how important it is to ensure customers and drivers understand the limitations of the technology and do not confuse driver assistance systems or semi-driverless technology with a fully autonomous feature.’

Safety fears surrounding driverless cars 

There are numerous safety fears surrounding driverless cars. Although it is relatively easy to get self-driving cars to navigate wide roads in the US, there are concerns over the use of the technology in the UK – where satellite coverage is poorer, the weather is more variable and where there is a greater density of road users.

And even in the US, there have been some horror crashes. Last week two men died after a Tesla car – thought to be driverless – smashed into a tree and burst into flames in Houston, Texas.

One man was believed to be in the front passenger seat and the other was in the back when the £58,000 car crashed when it failed to negotiate a bend.

And the Law Commission recently warned that driverless cars could be ‘racist’ because their recognition software ‘may struggle to recognise dark-skinned faces in the dark’.

Women could also be at greater risk, with the consultation adding that ‘current facial recognition software may also exhibit a bias towards white, male faces’.

Motorists would not be allowed to switch lanes while using the technology and it would be permitted only on motorways at speeds of just 37mph and under. It is expected that this limit could be lifted to 70mph if the scheme is a success. 

Today, Mr Shapps told Sky News: ‘This isn’t about the kind of cars that are already available, this isn’t about a self-driving Tesla or something, those would not qualify currently for full self-driving capability. Instead, this is about new technology, new types of car.’

Mr Shapps said that around 85 per cent of the 1,800 road deaths in the UK yearly are due to driver error.

‘The deaths come from primarily errors made by human beings, because we’re all human, and I just think if we’re ever going to drive that down lower, we can’t turn our back on technology,’ he said.

The move comes despite safety fears that were highlighted by the death in Texas this month of two men in a Tesla fitted with ‘autopilot’ technology.

In another incident, a pedestrian was killed by an Uber self-driving car in 2018. The death of Elaine Herzberg, 49, in Arizona was the first on record involving such a vehicle.

Uber halted its testing of the technology following the incident. At the time of the crash it was claimed the car’s ‘safety driver’ was watching TV.

In 2016, a 40-year-old driver in Florida was killed in a Tesla on autopilot that failed to stop when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of it. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US has opened around 28 investigations into crashes of Teslas that may have involved self-drive settings.

Announcing the UK’s plans, transport minister Rachel Maclean said: ‘This is a major step for the safe use of self-driving vehicles in the UK, making future journeys greener, easier and more reliable while also helping the nation to build back better. 

While ALKS is functioning there is no requirement for the user to monitor the driving environment, meaning they could be allowed to undertake tasks such as reading emails on the infotainment screen – so long as they could easily re-take control of the vehicle

Insurers and safety experts have shared their concerns that customers might misinterpret today’s lower levels of driver assistance as full automation, potentially causing more accidents in the short term

‘But we must ensure that this exciting new tech is deployed safely, which is why we are consulting on what the rules to enable this should look like.

How the first self-driving car death was in Arizona 

The first officially recorded death involving a self-driving car was in Arizona in 2018.

Elaine Herzberg, aged 49, was hit by the driverless Uber car as she wheeled a bicycle across the road. At the time of the crash it was claimed the car’s ‘safety driver’ was watching an episode of The Voice television show.

In 2016, a 40-year-old driver in Florida was killed in a Tesla Model S on autopilot that failed to stop when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of it.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US has opened around 28 investigations into crashes of Tesla vehicles to date that may have involved self-drive settings. 

‘In doing so, we can improve transport for all, securing the UK’s place as a global science superpower.’

Over a decade the changes could prevent as many as 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Chief executive Mike Hawes said: ‘Technologies such as automated lane keeping systems will pave the way for higher levels of automation in future.

‘These advances will unleash Britain’s potential to be a world leader in the development and use of these technologies, creating jobs while ensuring our roads remain among the safest on the planet.’ 

The Department for Transport says the move will cut accidents because human errors are responsible for most crashes.

It is understood the proposals will not require a change in the law as they are covered by the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018. 

Car-makers will have to meet new safety requirements for vehicles to be legally registered. 

The Highway Code will also be updated. 

Many cars already have ‘lane assist’ technology, which alerts motorists when they are veering out of lane.

But today’s announcement relates to more advanced technology which actually steers cars, known as ‘automated lane keeping systems’. 

No car-makers currently offer vehicles with the full automated lane keeping technology. 

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 an infotainment screen or read a newspaper

Autopilot criticised: A world’s first comparative test of vehicle makers’ driver assistance features last year found that Tesla performed well for safety but was wrongly encouraging owners to relinquish too much control to the car. Safety experts fear the Government’s use of the term ‘self-driving technology’ will encourage drivers to misuse vehicles fitted with ALKS

Tesla is close with its ‘autopilot’ system, which is capable of keeping cars within lanes and steering them. 

Experts list four ‘non-negotiable’ ALKS criteria

Thatcham Research and the ABI believe there are four non-negotiable criteria that need to be met before ALKS can be classified as automated:

1. The vehicle must have the capability, and be allowed through legislation, to safely change lanes to avoid an incident

2. The vehicle must have the capability to find a ‘safe harbour’ at the side of the road and not stop in a ‘live’ lane

3. The systems on the vehicle must be able to recognise UK road signs and this needs to be assured by an independent organisation

4. Data must be made available remotely through a neutral server for any incident to verify who was ‘in charge’ at the time of the incident – the driver or the vehicle

However, drivers must keep their hands on the wheel.

Meanwhile an expert on automated vehicles said today that automation could ‘go a long way’ to cutting the number of crashes on the road.

Professor Nick Reed told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that with new technology, a driver ‘might be able to look away from the road ahead for a short period of time, but there might be some monitoring to ensure that period isn’t too extensive’.

Asked if a driver could send a text, he said: ‘I think you could disengage for a short period of time, but these are the rules that have to be established, and that’s what I think this consultation is about.’

He said it is not yet known if self-driving cars are safer than human drivers.

He told Today: ‘We really don’t know that. But that’s what we need to establish. 

‘I think so many of our collisions have human error as a contributory factor and I think automation can go a long way to reducing the number of collisions that we have on the road.

‘But we don’t know yet what that will be and we don’t know what new types of collision might emerge with automation, so we need to get that evidence around how automation can improve safety so we can benefit from those technological advances.’

Car manufacturers may now look to plough more money into developing the technology as quickly as possible given today’s announcement.

Experts say fully autonomous cars could be on the roads by 2030. 

Source: Read Full Article