One step forward for self-driving cars

Are self-driving cars actually going to be on our roads soon?
25 August 2020

Interview with 

Peter Cowley




This week we are one step closer to a future of self-driving cars thanks to a new proposal the UK government is considering, which could see automated cars on the roads as early as next year. Our tech guru Peter Cowley told Eva Higginbotham more...

Peter - It's only a small step, but it's quite an important one. Basically, it's a call from the government for evidence for the safe use of automated lane keeping systems, or ALKS, basically staying in lane. So doing two things. One is not running into the car in front, of course, but also not leaving the lane, and although some cars already do that, they only do that with the driver having their hands on the wheel. In this case, this is actually allowing the driver to be aware, so it can take over if something goes wrong, but not be as involved as it would be at the current system. Of course, it has got to monitor whether the driver is actually still there. That he's still got a seat belt on, or her seatbelt on, monitoring eye tracking. It's got a black box in there, et cetera. And it will pass back control to the driver if it can't cope, but it's effectively the first time that the government's moving towards actually producing a legal definition of whether an automated vehicle can go on our roads or not.

Eva - Wow. So that's a truly hands-free type scenario. So what can, and can't self driving cars do already?

Peter - First of all, before we get too excited, these are under very strict conditions. This is an EU directive. It's being allowed throughout Europe from early next year. And this is only on roads where there's no pedestrians or cyclists, only when there's a central reservation. So basically only on the motorway or dual carriageway, and more importantly, no more than 37 miles an hour, or 60 kilometres an hour. Which means effectively, slow moving traffic. However, the UK government are trying to work out whether it's possible to do it up to 70 miles an hour, which is our speed limit in the UK. So how far have they got? There actually is no such thing as a self driving car on public roads yet. There are trials, and there are five levels of so-called autonomy. From the ones we see at the moment which are really levels one and two, to three, this is the first time that three, if it's allowed, will actually be on the road. But remember it's only in a single lane driving on a motorway, effectively. So it's a long way from the self-driving car.

Eva - I see, I guess one of the concerns is really, how much can we trust the average person to sort of use it safely and to also be paying attention while you know, having their hands off the wheel? What do we have to be wary of?

Peter - Yeah, that's a good question, because in fact, what it's trying to do is replace the average person with something that in principle should be safer. An automated system, if one believes in these things, means that they're less likely to make an error. So obviously they're not going to be drunk, or they're not going to be distracted by somebody in the back, et cetera, et cetera. So the average person isn't really relevant, it's whether one can trust the system to be effective, and mean that once it's enabled, that it works, but this person has still got to be available. They can't go and get a seat in the backseat, they've got to be available in case something goes wrong that the system can't cope with.


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