Feature

Are autonomous cars safe?

Cars that drive themselves are now being tested on public roads. We investigate whether you should welcome their arrival or steer well clear on the grounds of safety

Words ByDavid Motton

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Tesla Model S

What's it like to ride in an autonomous car?

Theory is all well and good, but what’s it actually like to sit in a car at 70mph while it drives itself? Well, the closest I’ve come is in a Tesla Model S, where you simply have to pull twice on the cruise control stalk to enter tomorrow’s world, today.

Interestingly, while engaging Autopilot is accompanied by a warning to keep your hands on the steering wheel, the system doesn’t complain or switch off if you ignore that instruction.

The Model S will stick to the centre of a motorway lane instead of pong-ing between the two white lines in the way cars with more basic lane-keeping assistance systems do. If you indicate, it will even change lanes for you. The most surprising thing overall is how quickly you feel comfortable.

Steve Huntingford


Will car buyers trust a self-driving car?

Before autonomous cars go on sale a host of technical and legislative challenges must be overcome. However, What Car?’s research suggests one of the biggest barriers could be gaining public trust.

We asked 4000 drivers if they would feel safe in a self-driving car. Some 27% said they would feel unsafe and 24% said they would feel very unsafe. Less than a quarter would feel safe or very safe.

So, is there an appetite for autonomous technology? Less than a fifth (19.5%) of those surveyed found the prospect appealing or very appealing. Almost half (45%) find the idea very unappealing, and nearly a quarter (23%) found it unappealing.


Can I buy a self-driving car now?

Not quite. Although there are no truly autonomous cars on sale and won’t be for many years, some cars come close to driving themselves in certain circumstances.

The American solution

Tesla has its Autopilot system, which costs Model S buyers Β£2200 (or Β£2600 as a post-purchase upgrade). Using a combination of ultrasonic sensors, radar and a forward-facing camera, Autopilot can detect other road users, as well as lane-markings. It will steer, manage speed, brake and even change lanes.

Tested by employees

Mercedes-Benz has Drive Pilot, which is available to E-Class buyers as part of the Driver Assistance Plus Package (Β£1695). It has been through one million kilometres (more than 600,000 miles) of testing, with regular Mercedes employees, rather than vehicle engineers, in the driver’s seat.

A spokesperson told us: β€œDrive Pilot requires the driver to keep their hands on the wheel. It is not an autonomous system, but rather an assistance system that also provides a step along the path to autonomous vehicles.”

Mercedes says it knows of no serious incidents that have happened while Drive Pilot has been in operation.

Driver monitoring built in

Volvo’s equivalent is Pilot Assist II, now standard on the XC90, S90 and V90. The system operates at speeds up to 130kph (80mph), so up to the UK motorway limit and beyond. Pilot Assist II switches off if the driver fails to keep their hands on the wheel, with the driver receiving a warning first. Like Tesla and Mercedes-Benz, Volvo is insistent that the driver must remain alert, with their eyes on the road and their mind on driving.

Theory is all well and good, but what’s it actually like to sit in a car at 70mph while it drives itself? Well, the closest I’ve come is in a Tesla Model S, where you simply have to pull twice on the cruise control stalk to enter tomorrow’s world, today.

Interestingly, while engaging Autopilot is accompanied by a warning to keep your hands on the steering wheel, the system doesn’t complain or switch off if you ignore that instruction.

The Model S will stick to the centre of a motorway lane instead of pong-ing between the two white lines in the way cars with more basic lane-keeping assistance systems do. If you indicate, it will even change lanes for you. The most surprising thing overall is how quickly you feel comfortable.


What Car? says...

Autonomous cars – and the stepping-stone technologies that will be introduced along the way – won’t mean an end to deaths and injuries on the roads. In fact, semi-autonomous vehicles in particular come with their own safety challenges that won’t be easy to resolve. In the long-term, however, we expect fully autonomous cars to save lives.

Read the full Tesla Model S review >

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