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UK to consult on tech that could see self-driving vehicles on freeways by 2021

Key Points
  • Self-driving technology could transform the way people undertake car journeys.
  • The U.K. government's announcement was welcomed by a number of organizations.
Chris Jongkind | Moment | Getty Images

The U.K. government has started a consultation on the use of Automated Lane Keeping System technology on Britain's freeways.

Unveiling its plans on Tuesday, the government described ALKS as "an automated system that can take over control of the vehicle at low speeds, keeping it in lane on motorways."

It explained that the tech had been developed to enable drivers to "delegate the task of driving to the vehicle," noting that a human would need to be ready to retake control of the vehicle when prompted. 

Among other things, the government's consultation is seeking views on "whether vehicles using this technology should be legally defined as an automated vehicle." If this were the case, the providers of the tech, instead of the driver, would have responsibility for vehicle safety when the ALKS is being used.

Opinions are also being sought on proposals that would enable the system to be used at speeds as great as 70 miles per hour. The consultation will close in October, with the government saying the systems could be seen on vehicles as early as next spring.

The development and widespread rollout of self-driving technology could transform the way people undertake car journeys. With systems seemingly developing at a rapid pace, efforts are underway to create a framework of standards to help usher in the technology.

In June, for instance, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe approved an ALKS Regulation, describing it as "an important step towards the wider deployment of automated vehicles to help realize a vision of safer, more sustainable mobility for all." The U.K. is a member of UNECE.

"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," Rachel Maclean, the transport minister, said in a statement.

The government's announcement was welcomed by a number of organizations, including the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), a major trade association.

"Autonomous vehicle technologies, of which automated lane keeping is the latest, will be life-changing, making our journeys safer and smoother than ever before and helping prevent some 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade," Mike Hawes, the SMMT's chief executive, said on Tuesday.

"This advanced technology is ready for roll out in new models from as early as 2021," he added, describing the government's announcement as "a welcome step in bringing the regulation up to speed so that the UK can be among the first to grasp the benefits of this road safety revolution."

It comes after the Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, unveiled plans last week to create a 40 mile "connected and autonomous vehicle" corridor in the state. 

Partners in the scheme include the University of Michigan, the American Center for Mobility, Ford and Cavnue, which will act as master developer. The initial phase will test technology and look into the viability of the corridor, which would link Downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor.