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Self-driving cars: all you need to know

We’re told they’re the future and that only legislation holds them back. But when will self-driving cars be a reality? Read on...

Self-driving cars were, in fairly recent history, considered the stuff of cartoons and sci-fi films. Now, though, a huge number of cars you can buy today have at least some 'autonomous driving' technology. But what, exactly, does this mean to you?

Autonomous technology has been fitted to cars for a number of years – it's just that the next leap to full 'self-driving' hasn't been made yet. Some luxury cars, for example, have offered adaptive cruise control for almost 20 years. This system, which uses radar waves to 'lock on' to the car in front and follow at a set distance, was effectively the first step towards cars with the ability to drive themselves.

Essentially the same technology sired the autonomous emergency braking systems fitted to many new cars today. Instead of just detecting and following the car in front, here the radar sensors are used to identify obstacles ahead and instruct the car to brake to avoid them.

So the technology has long been there to allow a car to automatically cruise in traffic and then come to a safe stop if it needs to. The next step is to allow cars to steer themselves, as well as accelerate, stop and – using satellite technology and networked communication – give them the brains to find their way home. Such fully automatic cars, requiring nothing from the driver than a command to set off, are technically feasible right now.

However, although the the technology exists, making it work reliably and safely on public roads and ensuring that it can integrate safely with non-autonomous traffic, is the biggest challenge of all.

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When can I have one?

You can actually buy a car with fully autonomous driving technology right now. However, there are currently limitations on just how much independence from its driver a car is allowed to have. We're a long way from cars allowing you to snooze on your daily commute while the computer does all the work.

For the sake of safety, semi-autonomous driving systems such as Tesla's Autopilot and Volvo's Pilot Assist systems require you to keep your hands on the wheel, even though the system can automatically accelerate, brake and even steer the car.

The Autopilot system, available on the Tesla Model S saloon and Tesla Model X SUV, can take almost all of the effort out of motorway driving – all you need to do is provide guidance. As long as your hands are on the wheel, Autopilot will cruise, brake and even change lanes on your behalf – a flick of the indicator tells the car you intend to overtake. It makes for a much reduced driver workload and a more relaxing drive.

What does the law say?

Over time, as autonomous technology becomes the norm, it's expected that restrictions on just what a car can and cannot do without direct driver input may be loosened up. For now, though, legislation prevents cars from operating fully autonomously, apart from in supervised situations.

Lots of factors need to be considered, such as how fully autonomous cars will integrate with traffic that includes manually controlled vehicles. There’s also the question of insurance – if there’s a crash, who’s at fault? All this has yet to be decided and is therefore holding up the release of fully autonomous cars to the market.

This situation is changing, however. Volvo has been trialling autonomous and semi-autonomous driving with the assistance of volunteers in its home territory of Gothenburg, Sweden. The company has also announced plans for this "drive me" trial to be rolled out to London.

To get a taste of how quickly things are developing, Tesla reckons it'll have autonomous cars approved for wholly self-driving use by 2021. Toyota, Renault and Nissan all aim to have self-driving cars on the roads by 2020, but the limiting factor will still be legislation.

During 2016's State Opening of Parliament in London, the Queen announced that "ministers will ensure that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport, including autonomous and electric vehicles”. It’s currently thought that this will partly be achieved by allowing driverless cars to be covered by conventional insurance policies. If this happens, it'll be as clear an indication as possible that the establishment sees autonomous motoring as being a vital part of Britain’s transport future.

Jaguar Land Rover, on the other hand, predicts that it won’t be able to get self-driving cars to market before 2024, while Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche has said that fully autonomous Mercedes cars won’t be available until 2025. It’s not just the traditional car companies that are interested in getting this technology off the ground, either: Google has teamed up with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to co-develop an autonomous car, while Apple is also rumoured to be keen on building a car, which we’re confident will have autonomous technology built in.

Thatcham Research, a leading car safety and security company, estimates that by 2018, legislation will permit cars to be driven ‘hands-free’ on the motorway for a period of up to three minutes – although the ultimate responsibility for the car will rest with the driver. By 2021, it’s expected that designated sections of motorway will allow for cars to be completely self-driving, with the driver able to read a book or write lengthy emails. Come 2025, Thatcham predicts that cars will be completely autonomous, and will be able to complete door-to-door journeys with no driver inputs at all.

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How do autonomous cars work?

We’ll try to explain without resorting to language more commonly found in the faculty room of the physics department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Essentially, a lot of the necessary systems already exist. The biggest challenge is bringing them together to operate harmoniously. For example, adaptive cruise control – a feature that’s becoming more and more common in cars – uses radar (basically very powerful parking sensors) to determine the distance to the vehicle in front. You select a safe distance and the system manipulates the car’s engine and brakes to maintain it.

There’s also blind-spot monitoring (which detects cars sitting in your blind spot on the motorway), detailed satellite navigation, parking sensors, road-sign-recognition cameras, automatic gearboxes and electrically assisted steering.

All of these systems individually control one aspect of the car. When they’re brought together with an array of extra cameras, sensors and, of course, computing power, the car can essentially ‘see’ all around it. As we do when driving, the car’s ‘brain’ then uses this information to stop, go, steer and generally react to its surroundings.

What are the benefits?

According to manufacturers, the benefits of self-driving cars are almost endless. By freeing cars from the control of their least reliable component (the human in the driver’s seat), they become much less likely to crash, making road travel a lot safer. Indeed, Volvo’s advances with active safety technology have led the Swedish brand to make the bold claim that by 2020, no-one will be killed or seriously injured in or by one of its cars.

There are also likely to be environmental advantages to self-driving cars. Again, this is down to the elimination of the unreliable human from the picture. People don’t always drive their cars in the most efficient manner, whereas a computer can make the most efficient inputs 100% of the time. Obviously, this will save you money on running costs and contribute to saving the planet, too.

Car designers and engineers will also no longer have to ensure a good driving position and impeccable visibility. This means they’ll be free to package cars more effectively, with more space for people and luggage and better aerodynamics outside, thereby further improving efficiency.

Other, more obvious, benefits of fully autonomous cars include being able to catch up on e-mails (or sleep) on the way to work, as well as being able to go for a pint after work without worrying about going over the drink-driving limit.

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Any disadvantages?

Many people – especially driving enthusiasts – will mourn the removal of the driver from the process of driving. For the most part, however, you should still be able to drive your car when you want, only engaging ‘autonomous mode’ for monotonous motorway driving or stop-start city traffic. This is especially likely to be the case with the first self-driving cars to arrive.

There are also concerns about technology holding our lives in the balance. Do we want to hand over full control of our cars to computers? What if something goes wrong? It could only take one tragic failure to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

Obviously, autonomous driving technology is being developed and engineered on the back of very sound scientific and electronic knowledge by exceptionally clever people. There is, however, always that intrinsic human doubt about trusting a computer with a safety-critical task.

Like most things, however, we’ll probably get used to self-driving cars – after all, people used to think that if humans travelled faster than a galloping horse, their heads would explode!

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