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THE Government is paving the way to let cars drive themselves from  as early as this year.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said vehicles fitted with an automated lane keeping system (ALKS) may be driven hands-free on motorways in slow traffic, at speeds of up to 37mph.

ALKS technology can detect an imminent collision risk and will carry out an emergency manoeuvre such as braking or a change of direction.

The DfT claims the technology could boost road safety as human error ‘contributes to over 85 per cent of accident’.

A consultation, ending on May 28, has been launched on updates to the Highway Code to ensure autonomous systems are used safely and responsibly.

Transport minister Rachel Maclean said: “This is a major step for the safe use of self-driving vehicles in the UK, making future journeys greener, easier and more reliable while also helping the nation to build back better.

“But we must ensure that this exciting new tech is deployed safely, which is why we are consulting on what the rules to enable this should look like.

“In doing so, we can improve transport for all, securing the UK’s place as a global science superpower.”

While the announcement was welcomed  by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), it could open up a can of legal worms.

SMMT Chief Executive, Mike Hawes, said that automated systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save 3,900 lives over the next decade through their ability to reduce the single largest cause of road accidents – human error.

He added: “Technologies such as Automated Lane Keeping Systems will pave the way for higher levels of automation in future – and these advances will unleash Britain’s potential to be a world leader in the development and use of these technologies, creating essential jobs while ensuring our roads remain among the safest on the planet.”

However,  AA president Edmund King was more reserved pointing out that there are still gaps in how the technology detects and stops if the vehicle is involved in a collision. He added that more needs to be done to rigorously test these systems before they are used on UK roads.

Paul Loughlin,solicitor specialising in motoring law at Stephensons, said: “Though the arrival of self-driving vehicles on UK roads is seen as something of an evolution rather than revolution at this stage, it does threaten to tear up the rulebook when it comes to motoring law.

“It raises questions about how much liability we can attribute to a person if the car was carrying out its functions automatically. Can a driver – or perhaps ‘user’ is more appropriate – of a self-driving car be guilty of something that the software and mechanics of that vehicle was controlling at the time of the incident? Is the driver of that vehicle to blame or the manufacturer?

“There are many questions that need to be addressed and it is clear that the law must make considerable changes in order to accommodate self-driving vehicles on our roads.”

Hojol Uddin, Head of Motoring and Partner at JMW Solicitors, said it would take time for people to adapt to the technology which could also attract cyber criminals so security of driverless vehicles is paramount.

He added: “It is likely that insurers will dedicate specific exclusions for their policies once the first phase of vehicles are being tested and they see what occurs with these transition demands. I wouldn’t be surprised if insurers themselves adapt technology alongside manufacturers to monitor what a driver is doing or not in driverless cars, for the purposes of liability and cover.

“The Highway Code will have to be changed entirely to determine the relevance of certain rules. For example will the driver really need to know stopping distances and times if the computer is going to do the thinking for you as well as the stopping. In addition, will it be necessary for mirror signal manoeuvre being drilled into every student when cars of the future will do this for you. Most of the Highway Code will be redundant, as cars will be able to read signs and everything else we were taught to do.

The whole legal framework will need to be changed to take driverless cars into consideration. The Law Commission is currently in its last consultation phase. This takes into consideration every scenario relating to autonomous vehicles and developing an Automated Driving System – a system within a vehicle not the vehicle itself.”

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