ALKS represents the first UK public deployment of Level Three vehicle automation, and clearly there is much to do, says Sascha Spillner, account manager at Avnet Abacus
UK and ALKS: What’s the controversy?
Back in August 2020, the UK government announced a then-forward-looking initiative to assess the future of automated vehicles on UK roads. Fast forward eight months, and the Department for Transport (DoT) announced that ‘vehicles fitted with Automated Lane Keeping System (ALKS) technology could legally be defined as self-driving’, and hinted that this definition of self-driving cars could soon be cleared for use on UK roads.
ALKS technology qualifies as ‘Level Three’ automation in the One-Five Level grading of automated vehicle control and could improve road safety by reducing human error – which contributes to over 85 per cent of accidents according to the DoT. However, initial reaction from driving bodies and some insurance companies in the UK has been one of caution.
What exactly is ALKS?
ALKS is an emerging automotive standard, the system requirements for which are set out in a relatively new United Nations Economic Committee for Europe (UNECE) Regulation. In broad terms, ALKS is essentially a more robust combination of two technologies already common in the electric powertrain and petrol/diesel market: adaptive cruise control (ACC) and lane-keeping assistance (LKA).
The key difference between these two forerunners and ALKS is that ALKS allows the driver to hand over the dynamic driving task to the vehicle, effectively freeing them to do other non-driving tasks until alerted otherwise. This raises a variety of questions around the readiness of the technologies involved and the legal framework within which they will operate.
The UNECE Regulation sets out clear boundaries for ALKS, specifying that it can only be activated under certain road conditions where pedestrians and cyclists are not present, opposing traffic flows are physically separated and at low speeds of 60km/h, or 37mph. In general, this restricts use to motorways at low speed – although how that might be enforced is another question.
Wide-ranging technical challenges
Thatcham Research has greeted ALKS with caution. In a statement, the firm questioned the use of the term ‘self-driving’ for ALKS-enabled vehicles, but also raised a series of questions around managing common issues. These include in-lane hazards (obstacles and unexpected pedestrians) and the ability of the vehicle to find a “safe harbour” at the side of the road as most ALKS systems would respond to non-input from the driver by slowing to a stop in-lane. A particularly pertinent criterion for the insurance industry was that a neutral server should be made available to enable verification of whether the ALKS or the human driver was in charge in the event of an incident.
Mark Shepherd, assistant director, head of General Insurance Policy, Association of British Insurers, said in a statement: “While the insurance industry fully supports the development towards more automated vehicles, drivers must not be given unrealistic expectations about a system’s capability. It is vital that Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS), which rely on the driver to take back control, are not classed as automated, but as assisted systems. By keeping this distinction clear we can help ensure that the rules around ALKS are appropriate and put driver and passenger safety first. Thatcham Research has identified some concerning scenarios where ALKS may not operate safely without the driver intervening.”
The human factor: Unknown
An interesting earlier study from the DoT explored the driver’s response to ALKS technology in a wider sense, exploring the types of non-driving tasks a driver might undertake while ALKS is enabled, and how those types of tasks impact on the ability of a driver to resume control of the vehicle when prompted. One study quoted in the report found that 80 per cent of drivers chose to engage with their smartphone, an interesting counterpoint to current UK law, where a driver can get six penalty points and a £200 fine if they use a hand-held phone when driving.
The study concluded that manual and complex non-driving tasks (such as working on a laptop or messaging on a smartphone) are likely to delay driver re-engagement when prompted by ALKS, and that mandating tasks be performed only through the car infotainment system should be considered to minimise that risk.
ALKS: The start of the future
ALKS represents the first UK public deployment of Level Three vehicle automation, and clearly there is much to do – indeed a further consultation on changes to the UK Highway Code is set to complete in May 2021. The technical and psychological challenges in deployment at low speeds are considerable, but will serve as a test case for the technology as a whole, as well as establish processes, checks and balances for the entire automotive ecosystem, most notably for the deployment of safety-focussed standards such as V2X technology. That may well prove to be a long process but should set the tone and establish a scaffolding for future enhancements towards Level Four automation.
Sascha Spillner, account manager at Avnet Abacus