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

Cars with automated driving modes will be on the road in the next two years. We take a ride in one to find out what it's like...

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Claire Evans
11 September 2019

Thatcham autonomous driving

To get first-hand – or rather, hands-free – experience of what it will be like to drive an automated car in 2021 and 2025, I was given the opportunity to drive a Lincoln MKZ saloon fitted with an autonomous driving system and a driver monitoring system called Liv developed by Swedish company Veoneer. 

To meet the first requirement of ensuring that every driver understands how to use their car’s automated driving system, I had to set up an account with Liv using a mobile phone app. The system them recognised me when I got into the car and prompted me to watch a safety video before allowing me 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. 

Thatcham autonomous driving

Veoneer had swapped the Lincoln’s standard steering wheel with one that lit up 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 when 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. 

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

Thatcham autonomous driving

In the 2021 demonstration, the autonomous system can drive the car along a dual carriageway, but can’t cope with unexpected alterations such as roadworks. I was driven along a test track, set up as a dual carriageway, with a coned-off section towards the end. While the car was driving, I was able to use the infotainment system to watch a film, but 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 a warning.   

When the car spotted the fake roadworks, it told me I needed to take back control of the car to navigate the roadworks. If I 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 be potentially dangerous. 

Thatcham autonomous driving

The more sophisticated systems that are expected to be available from 2025 onwards can cope with unexpected obstacles, and when the Lincoln drove me 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 me 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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The safest cars on sale today

New cars have never been safer, and of the 51 models that the safety experts at Euro NCAP have tested since tough new standards were introduced in 2018, 41 have earned the full five-star safety rating. Among them are such diverse vehicles as the Audi A1 Sportback city car, the BMW Z4 sports car and the Skoda Kamiq small SUV.

However, while Euro NCAP has stated that drivers have never been safer, there are still big differences between the very best and worst performers. So, below we count down the cars with the 10 best scores – and reveal the models that received one star or less.

The top 10:

10. Skoda Scala

Skoda Scala driving

Adult occupant protection 97% Child occupant protection 87% Pedestrian protection 81% Safety Assist 76%

Total Euro NCAP score 341/400

Cheap to buy, more spacious than the Volkswagen Golf and available with the latest safety tech, the Skoda Scala is a fine all-rounder that should be on the shortlist of anyone in the market for a family hatchback.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Adult occupant protection 93% Child occupant protection 87% Pedestrian protection 85% Safety Assist 77%

Total Euro NCAP score 342/400

Large SUVs are all gas-guzzling planet polluters, right? Well, not the Toyota RAV4, because thanks to hybrid power, it pumps out less CO2 than a 1.0-litre Ford Fiesta.

Read our full Toyota RAV4 review or see our latest RAV4 deals

=7. Toyota Corolla

Toyota Corolla

Adult occupant protection 95% Child occupant protection 84% Pedestrian protection 86% Safety Assist 77%

Total Euro NCAP score 342/400

As good as the latest RAV4 is, we reckon it's Toyota's family hatchback, the Corolla, that's the best hybrid currently on sale.

Read our full Toyota Corolla review or see our latest Corolla deals

Next: more of the safest cars >

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