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

As a Government minister warns of scare stories when drivers start using self-driving cars, here's what autonomous vehicles are like to 'drive' and what happened when we tested one...

Thatcham autonomous driving

Transport minister Jesse Norman has told MPs that a "horrendous" part of the development of self-driving vehicle technology will be "scare stories, particularly in the early stages" of the introduction of this new technology.

Speaking to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, Mr Norman said: "It's a really interesting question... as to whether or not we... are able to weather that moral panic in the pursuit of a future which might lead to an enormously larger number of people not dying." He added that the safety record of self-driving vehicles will be "intensely publicly scrutinised".

His comments come a month after the UK became the first European country to allow drivers to take their hands off car steering wheels on public roads. The Department for Transport (DfT) gave Ford permission to activate its BlueCruise system on motorways. The system is fitted to the Ford Mustang Mach-E – an electric SUV – and can control the car's steering, acceleration, braking and lane positioning.

Autonomous car display screen

However, fully self-driving cars remain banned on public roads in the UK unless they are part of a Government-approved trial. Legislation to approve the technology could be introduced as early as 2025.

As part of the DfT's roadmap for the introduction of self-driving cars, it has introduced a £100 million funding plan for research that will be used to inform new laws to allow the safe wider roll-out of self-driving cars. This will include researching their performance in poor weather conditions and how they interact with pedestrians, other vehicles and cyclists.

Part of the £100 million will be used to try to kick-start commercial self-driving services and enable businesses to grow and create jobs in the UK. A successful projects could deliver groceries to customers using self-driving vehicles, for example. 

The Government believes self-driving vehicles could revolutionise travel for those who don’t drive, improve transport for rural communities and reduce collisions caused by human error.

Are autonomous cars safe?

AA president Edmund King has said: “It is quite a big leap from assisted driving, where the driver is still in control, to self-driving, where the car takes control.

"It is important that the Government studies how vehicles would interact with other road users on different roads and changing weather conditions. However the ultimate prize, in terms of saving thousands of lives and improving the mobility of the elderly and the less mobile, is well worth pursuing.”

Some changes are already on the way, including amendments to the Highway Code to help ensure the new technology is used safely.

One new regulation stipulates that when the vehicle is in control, the person behind the wheel will be permitted to view content that is not related to driving, such as movies, on built-in display screens. However, it will still be illegal to use a mobile phone, because these are deemed to pose a greater risk of distraction and therefore might prevent a driver from noticing that the car requires them to resume control.

What’s it like to drive an autonomous car? 

To find out just how far self-driving technology has come in recent years, we took a test drive in a Lincoln MKZ saloon fitted with an autonomous driving system and a driver monitor called Liv, which has been developed by Swedish company Veoneer.

Thatcham autonomous driving

We tried two versions of the technology: one that is similar to the systems drivers can now use, such as Ford's BlueCruise, and a more sophisticated system that won’t be available until 2025. 

Before we could start driving, we had to set up an account with Liv using a mobile phone app. Its purpose is to make sure that every autonomous car user understands how to use their vehicle’s technology.

Then, when we got into the car, the system recognised us and prompted us to watch a safety video before allowing us to drive. The system can recognise several people and remembers information about each of them, including whether they have seen the video (so they don’t have to watch 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's in. Red indicates that 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. 

Thatcham autonomous driving

To ensure that 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.

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.

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. 

Thatcham autonomous driving

The first system we tested was able to drive the car along a motorway but couldn't cope with unexpected hazards, such as roadworks. We tested it on a stretch of open road with two lanes, then on a section with carriageway works.

While the car was driving along the open road, we were able to use the infotainment system to watch a film. However, when I pretended to go to sleep, the driver monitoring system knew I wasn’t alert enough to take over driving if necessary and it sent me a warning to take more notice of what was going on ahead.

When the car spotted the roadworks, it told us we needed to take back control to navigate through them. When we didn’t respond, the system slowed the car down and brought it to a controlled stop in a lay-by.

Thatcham autonomous driving

Importantly, it didn’t simply stop the car in an active lane, which could be dangerous. The process for ending automation is crucial because it will be used by insurance companies to determine who was in control of the car at the time of any accident. The driver monitoring system can provide information on how much attention the driver is paying to the road at any time.

We also tried the Lincoln in a more sophisticated self-driving mode – similar to the systems due to be available from 2025 – designed to cope with unexpected obstacles. On the stretch of open road, the car behaved the same as before, letting us take our eyes off the road but not go to sleep or become completely unobservant.

When it spotted the roadworks, it slowed the car to 15mph (the speed limit that had been set for the section of road) then steered the car through the roadworks before speeding up again. Finally, it took the car through the coned-off section in a controlled and safe manner without us needing to touch the steering wheel or take over the driving at all. 

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