Hands-free driving: Is that good or bad news for freight?

Hands-free driving: Is that good or bad news for freight?

Head of Consumer Research | ParcelHero

The UK Government could approve hands-free driving by next spring and has issued a call for evidence into automated lane keeping systems. David Jinks MILT, Head of Consumer Research at ParcelHero, looks at how this move might impact on the logistics industry and whether it could finally clear the way to platooning.

Last month the UK Government announced a call for evidence into the introduction of automated lane keeping systems (ALKS). Launching the consultation, 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."

It's a bold strategy, and one that could make the UK’s roads safer and less prone to stop start traffic - a benefit for all road users. The Minister believes: "The UK's work in this area is world-leading and that is why the Government is looking to lead the way."

Following the approval of ALKS Regulation in June 2020 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) - of which the UK is a member – the technology is likely to be available in cars entering the UK market from spring 2021. That regulation permits the technology to be used at low speeds (up to 37mph - 60km/h), keeping a vehicle in lane on a motorway while in a jam, for example. However, the UK Government is seeking to expand both the technology and the legislation to allow the use of the system on British roads up to the UK speed limit of 70 mph.

The Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, explains: "Automated vehicle technology has the potential to transform the way we travel. It could improve connections for rural communities, help deliver essential goods to people’s doors, and give everyone better access to education, to work or simply allow them to see friends and family more often. It could also make our roads safer. In 2018, 85% of road collisions in Great Britain that resulted in injury involved human error. Automated vehicles could reduce these errors as they will not get tired or distracted."

However, there’s also a hint of Brexiteering about the plans. Shapps says "…the UK has a unique opportunity to exploit the regulatory flexibilities that come with our position as an independent nation and we will explore how to use these flexibilities to build on our world class research base and open regulatory environment for automated vehicle technology."

Why is ALKS different to driver assistance?

The technology is designed to enable drivers – for the first time ever – to delegate the task of driving to the vehicle. When activated, the ALKS system keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything. Of course, the driver must be ready and able to resume driving control when prompted by the vehicle.

ALKS will require different legislation to the driver assistance already found on many new cars. ALKS delegates responsibility for driving to the vehicle itself. This is distinct from driver assistance systems already widely found in cars, such as lane keeping assist, where the driver must remain in control of the vehicle and remains responsible for the driving task at all times. This change in the role of the driver challenges existing law on the responsibilities of a driver and the Government believes changes to both the law and the Highway Code are needed to ensure ALKS can be safely used as anticipated on UK roads.

One of the big problems to be considered in the call for evidence will be 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.

Another also surrounds the question of legal responsibility. Where the vehicle performs an unjustified emergency manoeuvre, where the vehicle may come to a stop in lane without driver input, how can the driver be protected from unfair prosecution?

Not so good for goods?

Sadly, it looks as if the new system, even if it does get the go ahead for next spring, will not be of immediate relevance to road hauliers and delivery companies. Despite the Secretary for Transport specifically mentioning the plans will "help deliver essential goods to people’s doors", UNECE stated the scope of the regulation is limited to M1 category (light passenger) vehicles. So Britain’s army of HGV drivers, battling daily with traffic jams on UK motorways are not going to be offered any taste of this ‘smoother and easier’ driving any time soon. 

Indeed, there is the possibility professional drivers may have to be even more alert as cars’ behaviours start to change and perhaps become less predictable, especially at junctions, etc. Hence the pressing need for a change in the law to clarify exactly who is responsible under different circumstances.

Preparing for platooning

However, there is always hope that the introduction of automated lane keeping systems might, literally, prepare the road for the continuing development of platooning: convoys of semi-automated trucks. A group of connected HGVs can travel in convoy, with acceleration, braking and steering controlled by the lead vehicle. Each lorry still has a driver in the cab ready to retake control at any time. Platooning could make commercial vehicles potentially greener and safer. It can lead to traffic congestion reduction, fuel consumption improvement and increased capacity. The UK has already held extensive tests of this technology.

ALKS is described as Level 3 automation. Considerable UK platooning testing has already taken place at Level 2 automation, effectively the level of driver assistance systems already found in many high-end passenger cars. Most major truck manufacturers are developing platooning systems in co-operation with government agencies all over the world. In fact, until the impact of the coronavirus pandemic delayed progress, some companies claimed that that trucks equipped with platooning technology would come on the market this year. 

Trucks equipped with radar and vehicle to vehicle (V2V) systems can form, join or leave a platoon on the highway. Manufacturers say the systems do not require changes in signage and lane markings, but will require changes to spacing requirements. With changes afoot to clear the way for ALKS, hands-free driving may finally be the catalyst for regular platooning operations as well.

To have your say on the introduction of automated lane keeping systems, see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-government-announces-automated-lane-keeping-system-call-for-evidence or email: CCAVConsultation@dft.gov.uk.

(Main pic courtesy ParcelHero, copyright iStock)