What's it like to ride in a semi-autonomous car?

As US investigators say an Uber self-driving test car that hit and killed a woman had software problems, we investigate whether you should welcome autonomous tech or steer well clear...

New Porsche Panamera vs Tesla Model S

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 we’ve come to that experience is in Teslas, 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 car 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. And if you indicate, it will even change lanes for you. But perhaps the most surprising thing overall is how quickly you feel comfortable.

Are autonomous cars safe?

Will car buyers trust a self-driving car?

Before fully 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.

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. Meanwhile, 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.

Audi A8

The latest Audi A8, for example, can accelerate, brake and steer itself at speeds of up to 37mph. The Mercedes 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 2019 Family SUV of the Year. 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 do expect fully autonomous cars to save lives.

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