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Moves to legalise driverless cars create potential pitfalls for fleets

Government plans to make limited autonomous technology legal on UK roads later this year will have “no obvious benefits to fleets” but will create several potential pitfalls.

Peter Golding, managing director, FleetCheck

So says FleetCheck after the Department for Transport said last week that it’s planning to allow vehicles with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) on UK roads later this year.

The plans will allow the legal use of ALKS tech on cars fitted with it at speeds up to 37mph but FleetCheck said had no obvious purpose beyond perhaps being a real-world trial exercise.

Peter Golding, managing director at the fleet software specialist, commented: “The Government says that the thinking behind allowing this usage is to improve safety but travelling along a motorway in congestion conditions at relatively low speeds is not a major accident issue.

“Indeed, any model that is sufficiently advanced to have ALKS fitted will almost always also have automatic emergency braking technology or radar cruise that will stop the car if the vehicle in front brakes anyway. Their plans appear to have no real advantage.”

He also warned of “potential pitfalls” for fleets.

“It already appears that there is existing uncertainty among some drivers of cars fitted with autonomous technology in terms of what they are allowed to do legally and exactly where the limitations of the devices themselves lie. This may add to that confusion.

“There are also fundamental issues that may not have been fully explored. If a driver can take their hands off the wheel on a motorway using ALKS, then there is clearly an implication they can do something else instead.

“However, doing anything other than driving is almost certainly illegal. You couldn’t check your e-mails on your laptop, for example, or watch a video on your smartphone, or even take a nap. Your eyes must remain on the road.”

Both Thatcham Research and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have also said that ALKS systems are not automated and are instead ‘assisted driving systems’ that rely on the driver being ready and able to take back control at any and every time.

FleetCheck’s Golding added that, at the very least, fleets would need to produce policy documents that would aim to ensure that drivers understood how to use the technology safely.

“This needs to be, as far as possible, watertight from a fleet policy point of view. Employers need to ensure that drivers are given as much hard information as possible about their specific vehicle and how any autonomous technology fitted can be legally and safely used.”

Thatcham has also said that wider work will be needed across the automotive and insurance sectors to support the introduction of any such technology – in particular, ensuring that drivers are educated on what ALKS systems can (and can’t) do.

“A widespread and effective ongoing communications campaign led by the automotive industry and supported by insurers and safety organisations is essential if we are going to address current and future misconceptions and misuse,” said Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research.

For more of the latest industry news, click here.

Natalie Middleton

Natalie has worked as a fleet journalist for nearly 20 years, previously as assistant editor on the former Company Car magazine before joining Fleet World in 2006. Prior to this, she worked on a range of B2B titles, including Insurance Age and Insurance Day. Natalie edits all the Fleet World websites and newsletters, and loves to hear about any latest industry news.

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