Government consultation on self-driving cars on motorways raises ethical dilemmas


The Government has signalled its intention to allow self-driving cars on UK motorways as early as next year, subject to a speedy consultation process which has just been launched.

What does it mean for drivers? You could be changing lanes next to drivers who have their hands off the wheel while they send texts or watch films. Who is to blame in the event of an accident? The driver, the vehicle or the manufacturer? Driverless cars bring a host of ethical and moral dilemmas.

Andrew English, motoring correspondent for The Telegraph, asks: “Self-driving cars might be on our roads next year, but is our Government blinded by the prize of being first with autonomous technology?

“Will you be safe on the road in this vast, real-life 70mph self-driving experiment? How will it feel, being overtaken by long trains of autonomous cars while their drivers sit back and read the newspaper? Bear in mind, that these cars will be using the same basic camera-and-radar-based hardware you have in your car to provide lane-keeping assistance (LKA) and emergency lane keeping (ELK) systems.”

He argues that there is also an issue of whether such sensors will be able to ‘see’. Apart from the simple obstructive issues such as fog, snow or rain-spray obscuring the sensors, our motorways are very badly maintained in places, with faded road markings, damaged surfaces and potholes.

“Ten years ago, I’d have said that this sort of limited autonomy wouldn’t be a problem,” says AA President Edmund King, “but now the issues of poor road maintenance would be a major concern, the technology is only as good as what it can read.”

One of the concerns is ‘hand back’, where the vehicle sees something it doesn’t understand and requires the driver to take back control. Apart from the legal and insurance grey area of exactly who is in charge and responsible for the vehicle during this period, it can take a long time. Current research suggests that a handover might take between five and 15 seconds. At 70mph a car is travelling just over 31 metres every second.

The scope of the consultation

The Government consultation is looking at the use of Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) on motorways in England, Scotland and Wales. ALKS controls a vehicle’s movement without the need for driver intervention and is currently designed to keep a car in its motorway lane at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour – for example when there is heavy, slow-moving traffic.

One of the proposals under consideration is for driving regulations to be amended to allow drivers to watch films as well as send and read phone messages on their vehicle’s infotainment systems while the automated system is on. If given the green light, the move would allow drivers to legally send electronic communications from behind the wheel, something which is currently banned.

The proposals have also said car manufacturers could potentially need to install shaking and vibrating seats to alert drivers when they need to take control of the vehicle again.

The Department for Transport is consulting on allowing the system to be potentially used at speeds up to 70mph. Yet, the technology is mainly envisaged for scenarios such as heavy traffic on motorways or straight roads, where the driver can turn the driving over to the vehicle until speeds pick up again. Supporters argue that the technology has the potential to make roads safer by helping to eliminate human error.

The consultation will also look at whether the vehicle manufacturer could become legally responsible for the safety of the vehicle for the first time, rather than the driver, when the automatic system is engaged.

Following the launch of the consultation, Transport Minister Rachel Maclean said: “Automated technology could make driving safer, smoother and easier for motorists and the UK should be the first country to see these benefits, attracting manufacturers to develop and test new technologies.”

These words by the Transport Minister highlight the concern raised by motoring correspondent, Andrew English, that the Government is overly motivated in winning the race to be the first nation to adopt autonomous driving technology.

The consultation closes on 27th October.