News outlets have been getting excited about the Government announcement of a consultation on Automated Lane-Keeping Systems (ALKS) that could lead to the introduction of cars with Level 3 autonomous driving capabilities by early next year.
The SMMT reckons automated technology could save 3,900 lives over the next decade and reduce serious accidents by 47,000.
However, I have concerns about Level 3 tech. A few cars have ALKS which drive between the white lines unassisted. However, keep your hands off the steering wheel for more than a few seconds, and a warning signal instructs you to put them back.
The Government wants to test whether you can permanently keep hands off the wheel while the technology is deployed.
Here’s the issue: concentration. With Level 3 technology, the driver must be ready to re-take full control of the car at any time. But the moment you take your hands off the wheel and start to relax, most people’s concentration levels will dip, especially after a few miles.
We already have an issue with people using mobile phones while driving; give them the option to legally remove both hands from the wheel and I believe the temptation to fiddle with social media, emails, apps and text messages will be too much for many.
And, as people grow more confident about the technology, they will begin to take their eyes off the road for longer and longer periods. Should they need to suddenly regain control, it will take a few seconds for the brain to grasp what is unfolding on the road ahead and a few more seconds for it to instruct the body on a course of action – valuable time that has been wasted.
Even if a driver is paying attention, they’ll likely have their arms by their sides – rather than hovering mid-air – so it will take time to move them back to the wheel.
Level 4 technology – which allows driverless autonomy within strictly controlled areas – and Level 5 (full autonomy everywhere; not even the requirement to have a steering wheel) do have the potential for huge reductions in crashes, injuries and deaths on the road.
Level 3 is no more than a driver-aid. If you have to remain ready to regain control in an emergency, keep your brain engaged and your hands on the wheel at all times.