Following a consultation last year on authorising ALKS - Automated Lane Keeping Systems - the DfT today announced that these in-car systems will be authorised for road use by the end of 2021. ALKS is designed for ‘driverless’ motorway journeys at moderate speed and despite its ‘A’ standing for Automated, there is genuine debate over whether the technology satisfies the stringent definition of “a vehicle driving itself” as set out in the Automated & Electric Vehicles Act (AEVA) 2018 which came into force just last week (21 April).
As might be expected, ALKS operate to keep a vehicle in a particular lane of motorway traffic at speeds of less than 37 mph and will return control to the driver at higher speeds. The controversy over this technology arises from the AEVA definition, which provides that “a vehicle is ‘driving itself’ if it is operating in a mode in which it is not being controlled, and does not need to be monitored, by an individual”.
Insurers and Thatcham Research argue powerfully that because ALKS do not necessarily perform so-called ‘safe harbour’ manoeuvres or depart from the lane in the event of a hazard, they do not satisfy the AEVA definition of automated driving because these aspects mean that the (human) driver still needs to monitor the road and traffic for hazards and be prepared to take evasive action. Thatcham’s press release addresses this problem head on:
“Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) as currently proposed by the Government are not automated. They are assisted driving systems as they rely on the driver to take back control … by calling ALKS automated our concern also is that the UK Government is contributing to the confusion and frequent misuse of assisted driving systems that have unfortunately already led to many tragic deaths.”
The critical legal and insurance point here is that the AEVA makes an insurer liable for accidents “caused by an automated vehicle driving itself”. If, as insurers and Thatcham forcefully argue, an ALKS-equipped vehicle is not “driving itself”, then the deployment of ALKS as envisaged by the DfT looks likely to lead to significant public misunderstanding and confusion about the technology’s capability. That misunderstanding would also extend insurance cover and claims, not just those from other road users but also from the driver of the ALKS-equipped vehicle.
Sweeping press stories from government promoting the imminent use of new vehicle technologies are all very well. Although the engineering side of ALKS is relatively well-understood by most stakeholders, there really needs to be some clarity very soon on the important and necessary legal detail underpinning the safe and properly-insured use of ALKS on UK roads.