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Self-driving cars aren't yet safe; even the experts agree. But will the government listen?

Today's cars aren't safe enough to be considered or even classed as 'automated', according to independent industry experts.

Self-driving car
The government wants to make higher levels of semi-autonomous tech legal by next year, but car safety experts, Thatcham, maintain that the tech isn't ready yet.

Self-driving cars are a reason for many in society to rejoice. No boring driving lessons. No hours at the wheel commuting after a tiring day. And no human-error accidents. Except if the government fulfills its desire to make self-driving cars a reality for the masses from March 2021, the wheels could come off before they’ve even started turning. 

The plan is to legalise cars fitted with Automated Lane Keeping Systems for motorway use. It would allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road. The car will keep itself in the lane and use intelligent (often called 'adaptive') cruise control to maintain its speed.

But road safety experts say this could threaten road safety and may even jeopardise the future of self-driving cars. Thousands of cars on UK roads already feature Automated Lane Keeping Systems. But at the moment, it’s classed as a driver assist system. The driver must maintain control all the time and the system alerts them when they take their hands off the wheel. This function could be removed simply by reprogramming the car’s software.  Some cars featuring this tech, such as Teslas, can be updated remotely.

Tesla currently has the most advanced semi-autonomous driving technology, but many others including Audi, BMW, Volvo and more have similar 'Level 3' autonomous technology in their latest cars.

If the government does decide to permit Automated Lane Keeping Systems, thousands of these ‘automated’ cars could hit our roads on 1 March 2021. Why is this bad? After all, aren’t self-driving cars meant to take the nutter behind the wheel out of the equation, and hand decision making to rational computers? Well, yes, but experts at Thatcham Research and the Association of British Insurers say the systems currently in use aren’t safe enough for motorway speeds. 

Thatcham Research’s director of research, Matthew Avery, stated that “drivers could feasibly watch television in their car from early next year because they believe their Automated Lane Keeping System can be completely trusted to do the job of a human driver. But that’s not the reality. A car can only be classed as automated if it’s as competent as an engaged human driver. Current systems aren’t.”

The government is apparently keen to introduce Automated Lane Keeping systems because it will make post-Brexit Britain appear at the cutting edge of technology to the rest of the world. But it doesn’t appear very well thought through. 

Thatcham states that today's Automated Lane Keep systems are not advanced enough to respond to unexpected obstacles in the road, nor to recognise lane closure signs. 

Avery believes a premature launch could affect the public perception of self-driving cars: “It could give automation a bad name. There’s an acceptance that humans can get stuff wrong and it results in accidents, and that machines don’t get things wrong. But then when machines do go wrong… Look at the Boeing 737 Max.  If there are problems with Automated Lane Keeping systems, it could turn society against self-driving technology.”

Thatcham Research, a not-for-profit organisation owned by the UK insurance industry, believes that  the technology for automated driving won’t be ready to be deployed until 2025. It has even come up with 12 key principles that self-driving technology must meet to maintain road safety during the transition to automated driving. The Automated Lane Keeping Systems that the government is proposing to introduce next year satisfy just two of those 12 principles.

And Thatcham has highlighted various scenarios where the tech simply fails. It won’t be able to take evasive action if there’s an obstacle in the carriageway. It could hit a pedestrian getting out of a car where a human driver could take avoiding action. And it’s unlikely to understand the red ‘X’ signifying a lane closed on a smart motorway. 

Even if the proposed legislation is passed, those cars with the necessary level of automation will only be able to use it on motorways or dual carriageways.

Avery added: “Current technology requires an attentive driver to be engaged so they can re-take control of the vehicle when required. Automated Lane Keeping System technology would need a quantum leap in development to be able to cope with these very real scenarios safely.”

The problem with current systems lies in the radar that scans the road ahead. The sensors currently used can only ‘see’ up to around 120 metres ahead of the car. At motorway speeds that only gives the driver four seconds to take back control and avoid an incident. Current studies suggest a driver needs nearly four times that to react appropriately to a hazard.

Avery revealed: “With Automated Lane Keeping System-equipped cars bound by legislation that will not allow them to change lane autonomously, it’s crucial that sensor performance moves on dramatically before a system can be classified as ‘Automated’.  “We don’t think Automated Lane Keeping System technology is safe enough to be classified as ‘automated’. The Government’s proposed timeline for the introduction of automated technology must be revised.”

Self-driving cars offer very real benefits in the long term, once the technology is up to scratch. Let’s hope a short-term desire for positive headlines doesn’t set that back.