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Hands-free driving could be legal on UK roads by spring next year, the UK government has said. A consultation on the technology involved is under way. Specifically the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) has issued a call for evidence into automated lane keeping systems (ALKS).

The technology to do this is still very much developing, although we can certainly expect that it will make significant demands on the semiconductor industry that Thalia serves. But first some background.

This consultation looks at level three (of five) on the way to the ultimate aim of completely automated driving. In stage two the vehicle can control both steering and acceleration / deceleration. The automation isn’t classed as self-driving because a human is still required to sit in the driver’s seat and be prepared to take control of the car at any time.

Level 3 vehicles, however, have what are called environmental detection capabilities and can make informed decisions for themselves, such as accelerating past a slow-moving vehicle. The driver must remain alert and ready to take control if the system is unable to execute the task but, in theory, the driver could do other things such as check email or even watch a movie – until the car prompts him or her to take over again.

But don’t get too excited just yet. The UK government’s call for evidence, at some 46 pages, makes some pretty stern safety demands of what it calls ‘a traffic jam chauffeur technology designed to control the lateral and longitudinal movement of the vehicle for an extended period without further driver command’. These demands include a driver availability recognition system, reasonable thresholds designed to prevent unintentional inputs into the override capabilities, a data storage system for automated driving and numerous compliance requirements involving monitoring and control criteria – to name but a few.

But that isn’t all. The ALKS regulation approved in June 2020 by the United Nations Economic Commission is for a system (in its current form) capable of operating at speeds of up to just 37mph. It is therefore designed for situations of heavy, slow-moving traffic on a motorway. Why motorways? Because they go one way and are more controlled and simpler environments than most others. A slow-moving motorway is a good place to try out stage three ALKS.

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany has drafted legislation for level 4 autonomous vehicles. As yet, the legislation remains unpublished, but Germany, as the country of origin for most OEMs relating to the technology behind assisted and self-driving vehicles, could expect to see the reality of self-driving vehicles sooner rather than later. If this is the case, German legislation will likely guide all other nations legislative developments.

Even with the restrictions at levels 3 and 4 of automation, the market seems to be a promising one. According to a report released earlier this year by Acumen Research and Consulting, the global automotive lane keep assist system market is expected to reach a market value of around US$7 billion by 2026 and is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of around 16% in terms of revenue during the report’s forecast period 2019 to 2026.

It will no doubt mean a lot of work supplying a whole new market with tech – and a whole new semiconductor market with relevant IPs. And, of course, this market has a lot of development to do; new requirements, new sensors, new software and new hardware will supersede each other. Within a lot less than ten years, we may see not only level four (vehicles operating in self-driving mode within a limited area) but early level 5 cars: able to go anywhere and do anything that an experienced human driver can do.

As for public acceptance of ALKS, we can certainly assume that even hiccoughs or bad publicity will only slow rather than stop the rollout of this form of automated driving, and that when the first completely autonomous cars arrive – sometime after 2026 in all likelihood – a $7 billion market will just be the start.

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