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

Cars with self-driving modes will be on the road in the next two years. 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 cars that can drive themselves – so much so that they won't be a dream for much longer. But what will they actually be like?

Well, 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. 

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 them 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.

Thatcham autonomous driving

Veoneer had swapped the Lincoln’s standard steering wheel with 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 be around as soon as 2021, a car can drive along a dual carriageway, but can’t 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 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 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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The safest cars on sale today

New cars have never been safer, and of the 55 models that Euro NCAP has tested since tough new standards were introduced in 2018, 43 have earned the full five-star safety rating. Among them are such diverse vehicles as the Audi A1 hatchback, BMW Z4 sports car and Skoda Kamiq small SUV.

The thing is, though, 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.

=8. Toyota RAV4

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. The RAV4 comes with automatic emergency braking, including pedestrian and cyclist detection, as standard, as well as lane-keeping assistance.

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. Although the Corolla matches the RAV4 on its overall score, it betters its larger sibling in terms of adult occupant protection and pedestrian protection.

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

=8. Audi Q3

Audi Q3

Adult occupant protection 95% Child occupant protection 86% Pedestrian protection 66% Safety Assist 85%

Total Euro NCAP score 342/400

Until recently, the Audi Q3 had the highest Safety Assist score of any car tested under Euro NCAP's latest criteria. The list of systems that are standard includes blindspot monitoring and a lane-keeping system that can steer the car back into its original lane to prevent a head-on collision.

Read our full Audi Q3 review or see our latest Q3 deals

Next: more of the safest cars >

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