Self-driving cars enabling motorists to take their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel could be permitted on UK motorways later this year, the Department for Transport has announced.

It will allow hands-free driving in vehicles that have technology enabling them to stay in their lane automatically on motorways with slow traffic, at speeds of up to 37mph.

These cars will automatically monitor the speed of other traffic and keep a safe distance but the driver will be able to take control in an emergency.

Testing of driverless cars has been going on in Oxfordshire since 2017.

Last October a project believed to be the UK’s first multi-city trial of self-driving cars was launched in Oxford.

Six autonomous Ford Mondeos are travelling on a nine-mile route between the city’s main railway station and Oxford Parkway station.

They are fitted with “level four” autonomous technology, which means they are capable of performing all driving functions under certain conditions.

But there is a technician and a driver who can take over the controls sitting in the vehicles during the tests.

The route runs along the Banbury and Woodstock Roads to St Giles, and then into the main railway station and back again. 

Trials are run at all times of day and night to deal with a range of traffic scenarios from morning commutes to school runs, in different weather conditions.

The Government-backed Project Endeavour is being led by Oxford-based firm Oxbotica, a company pioneering self-driving technology in the UK.

Oxbotica senior vice president of external affairs Graeme Smith said: “It [Project Endeavour] aims to create a flexible, scalable model that will make the wide-scale deployment of autonomous vehicles quicker, easier, and more efficient – whilst maintaining the highest safety standards."

It will be expanded to include Greenwich in South East London and Birmingham.

A spokesman for Oxfordshire County Council said: "The Oxford trials started in October and  (with stops according to Covid restrictions) are expected to carry on until May 14."