No, we won’t have self-driving cars on our roads in 2021, no matter what the Government says

DfT’s clumsy announcement risks worsening dangerous confusion around driver aids and autonomy
The phrase self-driving cars conjures up unrealistic ideas in some driversThe phrase self-driving cars conjures up unrealistic ideas in some drivers
The phrase self-driving cars conjures up unrealistic ideas in some drivers

But will they really?

The Government’s plan is to allow cars with automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) to be recognised in law as “self-driving” thus allowing drivers to delegate responsibility for the driving task to the car, and delegate blame if it’s involved in an accident.

The SAE's standards of driving automationThe SAE's standards of driving automation
The SAE's standards of driving automation

Under the plan ALKS will be allowed to function at up to 37mph on motorways, controlling the car’s speed and position in the lane. It won’t be able to change lane, negotiate on/off ramps or travel at anything approaching motorway speeds but must be able to bring the car to a stop in its (presumably live) lane in a controlled emergency manoeuvre.

Not exactly KITT from Knight Rider, is it?

What’s more, braking aside, the technology itself isn’t much different to existing advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). These too can cope with slow-moving motorway traffic and bring the car to a stop in its lane, although personal and anecdotal experience proves they’re far from faultless, a worry if drivers are supposed to be relinquishing control entirely.

The big difference between ADAS and ALKS is that ADAS still requires the driver to be in full control, while ALKS, in theory, allows the driver to turn their attention to other things. Only it doesn’t. Even the Government’s own documents around ALKS make repeated reference to the need for the driver to be ready and able to take back control.

It says: “It is important... that the performance of any activities other than driving do not preclude the driver's ability to respond to a transition demand – and take over the dynamic driving task within ten seconds as required by the system.”

So, in other words, you still need to be paying attention in case the system encounters something it can’t cope with, such as roadworks or snow obscuring a sensor. Not so much self-driving, then, as hands-free driver assistance.

Even the broadly accepted definitions of vehicle autonomy - issued by the Society of Automotive Engineers - leaves ALKS-equipped cars in a grey area. Although labelled as Level 3 autonomous - where the driver is not actually driving - ALKS-style traffic jam chauffeur systems come with a caveat that the driver must resume control if requested.

Get past that woolly definition of a “self-driving” car that still needs a human to take over and there’s the issue of availability, or almost complete lack of, suitably equipped cars.

Audi has developed level 3 autonomy systems for the A8 but paused their roll-out due to concerns around legislation. Mercedes says the new S-Class has level 3 capabilities, if you’ve got a spare £75,000, but beyond those two it’s slim pickings. Honda is reportedly planning level 3 tech for its Legend, which isn’t sold in the UK and BMW has ditched plans to fit level 3 systems to its iX SUV. Even Tesla, the firm behind the grandly named Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (FSD) has admitted that its FSD is only level 2 capable.

One final problem with the Government’s dramatic announcement is that it risks adding to the confusion around what cars can and can’t do. You only need to glance at the idiots on YouTube sleeping at the wheels of their Teslas to realise that people are far too quick to embrace the idea of “autonomous” cars without understanding the reality. For the Government to suggest ALKS with its limited functionality and need for driver intervention is anything more than a glorified traffic jam assist system risks muddying the waters further.

Yesterday’s announcement means that by later this year there may be some cars on our roads technically defined as self-driving but it will be in name alone· The reality of their availability and capabilities remain a far cry from the Government’s bombastic claims.