Self-driving cars may be permitted on UK motorways this year

Two men recently died in a Tesla crash where nobody was in the driver's seat. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
Two men recently died in a Tesla crash where nobody was in the driver's seat. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Self-driving cars which allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road may be allowed on UK motorways in 2021.

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The Department for Transport (DfT) announced it will allow hands-free driving in vehicles with lane-keeping technology on motorways with slow traffic, at speeds of up to 37mph.

The department has 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.

ALKS technology allows a motorist to relinquish control over their vehicle, though they must at all times be prepared to resume driving.

It works by constantly monitoring speed through cameras and sensors, keeping the car a safe distance from others on the road.

The system can also detect "imminent collision risk", carrying out an "emergency manoeuvre" which could involve braking or a change of direction.

The DfT has described the system as "traffic jam chauffeur technology", claiming it could provide a huge boost to safety – with human error “contribut[ing] to over 85 per cent of accidents”,

A consultation has been launched on updates to the Highway Code to ensure autonomous systems are used safely and responsibly.

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.

"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.

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

Some, including AA president Edmund King, have warned against rushing into use of self-driving cars, fearing "more needs to be done to rigorously test these systems before they are used on UK roads."

Recently, concerns about self-driving vehicles were brought into sharp focus by the death of two men on April 17 in a Tesla collision where nobody was in the driver’s seat.

Additional reporting by PA.