Motorists will be able to drive hands free at 81mph (130km/h) on UK motorways as soon as 2018 under new international road laws that herald the start of true driverless cars.
The new regulations at the United Nations, due to be published next month, will allow cars to drive for up to three minutes without driver intervention. The regulations will expand to other UK roads from 2021.
The British Department for Transport said the international law change would not mean British law had to change because it did not mean drivers surrendering control over their vehicles.
Motorists will still have to be strapped into the front seat, but cars could soon be manoeuvring automatically on UK main roads, for example, to change lanes.
UK Finance Minister George Osborne placed driverless cars at the heart of his March Budget as he announced dedicated funding to help place Britain at the forefront of the technology. The news follows an announcement by Volvo that it will trial its driverless model on London’s streets.
Many new cars sold in the UK are fitted with features such as automatic braking or parking assist, which allows the car to squeeze into a space by itself.
The Times this week reported that more details about the technology would be outlined by Volvo and Thatcham, the insurance industry's research group, at a conference.
Thatcham chief executive Peter Shaw told the paper: “The danger is that as technology develops, and drivers become more confident, they will start to use it in conditions it has not been designed for. Our clear message is that until 2021, drivers need to stay on the ball and observe the rules of the road.”
Because the UN economic commission for Europe (UNECE) regulations, drawn up internationally to aid cross-border trade, will officially describe the technology as a ‘‘driver support system'’, British law may not need to change.
The Road Traffic Act requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times.
A transport department spokesman said: “We are working to change international regulations so that manufacturers can develop vehicles with features to assist the driver when on the motorway that, for example, help with lane changing. The driver will remain in control.The Highway Code says they should keep hands on the steering wheel at all times and this is not changing.”
Announcing the plan to change the regulations this month, the UNECE said: “Automated driving will be the next revolution in the field of mobility. “As human errors are the main reason for road traffic accidents, driving automatically controlled by a computer is expected to make future road transport safer.