We’ve certainly come a long way in the exploration and development of the self-drive automobile in the past few years. Now we appear to be on the brink of entering the next phase, where the self-drive vehicle becomes a reality. Much like the recent headline grabbing sensationalising (and misinformation) of the changes in the Highway Code relating to cars and bicycles interacting, we now have reports that the user of a self-drive car will be allowed to legally watch television on built in monitors. Headline grabbing again of course, but what are the facts?
The Department for Transport has hinted that we are edging ever closer to the first self-drive cars being allowed on our UK roads in everyday use – ie, not a regulated trial. The DoT has said that such vehicles could be ready for use possibly by the end of the year, and this is likely to cause one of the biggest upheavals in road safety legislation that we’ve seen for a long time. So huge, that a full regulatory framework isn’t likely to materialise until 2025, although these few aforementioned changes to the Highway Code are expected to filter in sometime this summer.
As it stands, it looks like such technology will be initially permitted on motorways only, places where there should be no pedestrians stepping out into traffic or bicycles to complicate matters. With cruise control now having become an accepted part of the incentives package to buy certain luxury cars, the likely next step will be the full acceptance of lane keeping technology. It should be pointed out that we are still a little way off from complete automation, and the horizon is only bringing us ever closer to assistive self-drive technology, which means that the driver will ultimately still be in control and able to immediately take full control of the vehicle. If that still sounds a little scary, then it’s worth noting that passenger aircraft autopilot technology has been in place now for some time; ‘autoland’ as it’s often referred to. Though it’s maybe also worth noting that professional pilots (depending on country) need retraining every 6 months to make sure they are up to date with the required technology.
In essence, what we are likely to see in the near future is self-drive vehicles able to allow hands-free driving with lane keeping automation – and only on congested motorways, thus keeping the speeds below 40mph. Of course, it’s the ‘watching TV’ part that has grabbed the most attention: what this refers to is the possibility that drivers will be allowed to view non-automobile-specific content on screens when the car is in automotive hands-free mode in slow single-lane traffic, with the likelihood that tech will be built in to automatically switch to automobile-specific screens when the driver takes full control at any point. Drivers are also very likely to be specifically prompted to take full control for motorway exits.
Much of this comes from recommendations made by the Law Commission which published its recommendation for driverless cars and updates to the law in January. Trudy Harrison, Transport Minister, has said that such recommendations would be considered. The Welsh and Scottish governments are also considering their options.
Thatcham Research has said that it is important that drivers remain always ‘engaged’ and ready to take back full control of the vehicle. Combined with the possibility of allowing drivers to view screens with content unrelated to driving, then we are heading into an area where we might rightly ask the question; how will individuals cope with their concentration being split, with a percentage of awareness needing to always be on the road – I know people who can’t read a quick text while listening to what is being said to them in a coffee bar! One thing is for sure, this is a very delicate process, and we are shortly to be tentatively taking a first step into unknown territory.
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