What's it like to 'drive' an autonomous car? 

Cars with self-driving modes could be on UK roads by spring 2021, under new proposals being considered by ministers. We've taken a ride in one to find out what you can expect...

Thatcham autonomous driving

These days, almost every car manufacturer seems to be chasing the dream of vehicles that can drive themselves – and if new proposals being considered by Government ministers get the go ahead, they won't be a dream for much longer.

The Department for Transport is looking at plans to permit advanced lane-keeping systems, which would allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel, send a text or watch a film while on the motorway.

If the technology gets the go-ahead, it could be permitted on UK roads as soon as spring 2021. But what will it actually be like?

To get first-hand – or rather, hands-free – experience, we took the opportunity to drive a Lincoln MKZ saloon fitted with autonomous driving technology and a driver monitoring system called Liv developed by Swedish company Veoneer. 

Thatcham autonomous driving

To meet the first requirement of ensuring that every driver understands how to use their car’s automated driving system, we had to set up an account with Liv using a mobile phone app. The system then recognised us when we got into the car and prompted us to watch a safety video before allowing us to drive. The system is able to recognise a number of different people and will remember information specific to them and if each one has watched the safety video so they don’t have to view it twice.

Veoneer had swapped the Lincoln’s standard steering wheel for one that lights up in different colours to tell the driver which driving mode it is in: red indicates the driver is in control, amber that control is changing between the driver and the autonomous driving system, and green that the car is in control. 

To ensure the driver is constantly monitored, the steering wheel is touch sensitive, so it knows if the driver has taken their hands off the wheel at an unsafe time, and the driver monitoring system it’s linked up to uses camera technology to assess how much attention the driver is paying to the road. It constantly tracks where the driver is looking and will send an alert if they have their eyes off the road for too long.

Thatcham autonomous driving

Ending automation needs to be a quick and easy process, and with Liv all we needed to do was take hold of the steering wheel and look at the road ahead for it to relinquish control and stop automated driving. 

With the technology that will could around as soon as 2021, a car will be able to drive along a dual carriageway, but it won't be able to cope with unexpected hazards such as roadworks.

We were driven along a test track, set up as a dual carriageway, with a coned-off section towards the end. While the car was driving, we were able to use the infotainment system to watch a film, but when the person behind the wheel pretended to go to sleep, the driver monitoring system knew they weren’t alert enough to take over driving if necessary and it sent a warning.    

When the car spotted the fake roadworks, it told us we needed to take back control of the car to navigate the roadworks. If we didn’t respond, the system slowed the car down and brought it to a controlled stop in a lay-by. Importantly, it didn’t simply stop the car in an active lane, as this could potentially be dangerous. 

Thatcham autonomous driving

The more sophisticated systems that are expected to be available from 2025 onwards will also be able to cope with unexpected obstacles, and when the Lincoln drove us through the same stretch of road in 2025 mode, the system recognised the roadworks, gained speed limit information for this section and slowed the car down to the required 15mph before driving us through the roadworks. 

The process for ending automation is important because it will be used by insurance companies to determine who was in control at the time of an accident. It’s the driver monitoring system that will provide vital information on who is in control and how much attention the driver is paying to the road ahead at any time. 

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Read more: Are autonomous cars safe? >>