(Pocket-lint) - The UK's Department for Transport has officially called for evidence in a consultation on automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) a first step towards establishing the legal position for self-driving cars on the UK's roads.
The consultation will specifically be looking into the technologies behind ALKS with a view to how these systems will get themselves enshrined in UK law in the future.
The announcement describes the system saying: "This technology is designed to enable drivers - for the first time ever - to delegate the task of driving to the vehicle. When activated, the system keeps the vehicle within its lane, controlling its movements for extended periods of time without the driver needing to do anything. The driver must be ready and able to resume driving control when prompted by the vehicle."
Most drivers will know that such systems are already widely available on current cars and have been for many years, from Nissan's ProPilot to Tesla's Autopilot - but also generally covered by the safety systems available through adaptive cruise control.
The nuance here is in the word "delegation" - currently many manufacturers pitch these systems as driver assistance (ADAS), and there's no sense of delegation as you have to stay in control of the vehicle yourself, at all times. The consultation will look at changing that to a situation where the car's technology is in control.
What's important about this consultation in the UK is the bearing this might have on legislation, which is one of the barriers to allowing properly autonomous vehicles onto the roads.
"The call for evidence will ask whether vehicles using this technology should be legally defined as an automated vehicle, which would mean the technology provider would be responsible for the safety of the vehicle when the system is engaged, rather than the driver."
So this consultation is less about the technology, but how that impacts on responsibility. Currently, the driver is responsible for control of the vehicle even when using systems like Autopilot on the Tesla, which is one of the more advanced systems of this type.
Tesla has seen a number of high-profile accident's highlighted because the vehicle has had an accident while driving in Autopilot. The case of a driver moving into the passenger seat on the M1 highlights both the technical prowess and the complication that these systems pose. Under new legisalation, detection systems will be in place to ensure the driver stays in their seat, that the driver stays attentive to the road and all data can be accessible in the case of an accident, so authorities can see what actually happened.
The announcement goes a little further, saying that later in 2020, a public consultation will open on changes necessary to The Highway Code to accommodate the findings from this latest investigation.
- Future electric cars: Upcoming battery-powered cars that will be on the roads within the next 5 years
The Department for Transport is saying that the process "could see systems on UK vehicles by Spring 2021". While the technology already exists from many manufacturers, it could lead to a slight change in how they are implemented to meet any requirements outlined as a result of this and successive consultations.