Are autonomous cars safe?

As Uber halts its self-driving car trials in North America following a fatal accident, we investigate whether you should welcome the arrival of autonomy or steer well clear on the grounds of safe...

Author Avatar
David Motton
11 October 2015

Are autonomous cars safe?

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 to that experience 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 that one of the biggest barriers could be gaining public trust.

Are autonomous cars safe?

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%) thought 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 some years, some cars come close to driving themselves in certain circumstances.

The latest Audi A8, for example, can accelerate, brake and steer itself at speeds of up to 37mph. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class uses data from its sat-nav to slow you down around corners and over bumps, while Volvo's Pro Pilot semi-autonomous system is offered on a wide range of models including the XC40 – our Car of the Year for 2018. Nissan has added semi-autonomous abilities to the latest Leaf electric car, too, and BMW is looking to launch its first fully autonomous car in 2021.

In addition, Tesla continues to develop its Autopilot offering on the Model S, Model X and Model 3.

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 >

For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here

Related cars