This week the Government stepped up its plans to facilitate the introduction of vehicles fitted with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) onto UK roads later this year, a move which is welcomed by the automotive industry. It’s important to stress that, looking beyond the headlines, we are still only at the beginning of a long journey towards the possibility of fully autonomous vehicles on our roads.
This technology is not “driverless” but is conditional automation – the SAE defined “Level 3 automated driving system”. This is an important distinction as a driver is still required to take over control when requested, most likely when the congested traffic for which the system is designed, accelerates away. No cars have yet been launched in the UK with this technology but we expect some probably by the turn of the year once the requisite regulatory changes come into force.
ALKS represents an important, but incremental step in the process, which is ultimately all about improving safety. Automated driving systems such as these could help 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 – and their introduction could help ensure Britain remains in the vanguard of road safety and automotive technology.
The shift towards higher levels of automation will not stop at ALKS and these systems will evolve over time. Enabling these vehicles to operate on Britain’s roads – subject to some changes to the regulation, the Highway Code and specific product approval – will help position the UK as a global centre for the development and deployment of these system creating essential jobs and keeping our roads remain among the safest on the planet.
Meanwhile, SMMT figures issued yesterday showed that new car production rose for the first time since August 2019 in March, climbing by 46.4%. Production of new commercial vehicles and engines also increased by 16.9% and 31.7% respectively. Whilst this is a major step in the right direction, and very welcome, it belies the fact that output was always going to be up this year due to automotive factories being shut for much of March 2020.
Nevertheless, this is a significant positive step, coming as manufacturers continue to work hard behind the scenes to keep cross border trade with the EU going, as well as dealing with Covid issues that are impacting world trade, not least the global semiconductor shortage, the effects of which are being seen in UK production facilities as well as those round the world.
UK car production is dependent on the shift towards electrification and securing investment for this transformation will depend on the global competitiveness of our industry. Costs to trade with Europe have increased and firms must simultaneously invest in new technologies, new processes and upskilling the workforce. A competitive business environment that helps reduce operating costs and policies that support manufacturing will be essential if the transition to zero is to be Made in the UK. So even as the UK unwinds from lockdown, the immediate future is still challenging.
It is therefore good to see renewed commitment to UK Automotive this week from Lotus, with a plan to build its last internal combustion engine sports car in Norfolk, followed by production of a new range of battery electric vehicles. This will create several hundred jobs in Britain, providing a boost to the economy and the UK’s reputation as a global leader in automotive research, design and manufacturing. If we are to secure more investments of this nature, we need to enhance our global competitiveness, through technological development, upskilling, a strong market and economy and a commitment to innovation and manufacturing itself.