Should I wait for an autonomous car? 

A reader is keen to buy a car with driver assistance features that mean the car can drive itself. Will these systems be available soon?...

Volkswagen Golf autonomous driving

I am currently looking at changing my car but don’t know if I should buy now or wait a while because I’d like a car with the latest driver assistance systems. I currently own a 2013 BMW 640, which is great to drive but doesn’t have any driver assistance systems at all. 

I have driven the latest versions of the Volkswagen Touareg and Volvo XC90, both of which are very easy to live with when the lane keeping and adaptive cruise control systems are activated. However, both of these cars require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel while the assistance systems work. 

I’ve read that next year there will be systems that can be used in certain driving situations with the driver being able to let go of the steering wheel, and I’m interested in finding out which cars this technology will be available on. 

I’ve also heard that Tesla is able to do over-the-air software updates on its cars. Is this something other car makers can also do currently or will they need new hardware, which will only be released with new models?

Steve Lawrence

What Car? says…

The Government is currently gathering information from the car industry and road safety organisations on what regulations would be needed to make it legal for cars to drive themselves in certain motorway traffic situations. 

This is the first step towards letting drivers take their hands off the steering wheel and let the car do the driving using an automated lane keeping system (ALKS) to keep the car in its lane and adaptive cruise control to control the car’s speed to keep it a safe distance from the car in front.

Thatcham autonomous driving

Although drivers may be allowed to let go of the wheel while the car is driving, they will still need to be alert and ready to take control if necessary. The introduction of fully automated cars is likely to take many years because of the complexity of driving and the vast range of traffic situations that cars would need to be able to cope with. 

However, the lane-keeping assistance and cruise control systems that are used by ALKS are standard hardware on the latest Volkswagen Touareg and Volvo XC90, so, in theory, these cars could be driven hands-free. However, until it is legal to do this, the cars need to use their driver monitoring systems to issue warnings to drivers if they let go of the steering wheel.

With regard to cars being given over-the-air updates, this is something that some car makers have tried out with their infotainment systems in recent years, but at present only Tesla is doing updates to safety systems. 

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We don’t expect over-the-air safety system updates to become available on the current versions of the Volkswagen or Volvo. The latest Touareg was only introduced in 2018 and the XC90 a couple of years earlier, so it’s unlikely that a new version of either will arrive soon, but both cars could potentially receive a model-year upgrade that brings a change to the driver monitoring system to allow hands-free driving. However, this is unlikely until late 2021 at the earliest, so our advice would be to change to a new car now so you can enjoy the benefits of the latest driver assistance systems; which, as you say, are not fitted to your BMW.

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Read more: The results of the world's first tests of assisted safety systems >>

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