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Everything you need to know about driverless cars

You’d be forgiven for feeling confused about where we are currently at with self-driving vehicles. These cars and the technology needed are in a constant state of development, meaning blink and you might just miss the latest news. So here is a what’s what, quick guide on everything you need to know about driverless cars. 

Remember when self-driving cars were reserved for sci-fi films? It was hard to believe they could become a reality. But, over the last decade we’ve seen a groundbreaking leap in technological advances within the motor industry. A couple of years after it was announced we were years off seeing roadworthy autonomous vehicles, we’re seemingly already on the cusp of driverless cars becoming widely used and accepted on today’s roads.   

Testing on public roads is already underway, but this doesn’t mean manufacturers have built the cars and simply let them loose on UK roads. The versions being tested have been specially made and loaded with sensors and computers which process information about the car’s surroundings and more importantly, there has always been at least one engineer on board to track performance and resume control if needed. 

To develop this costly technology some car makers are partnering up in a bid to cut costs and time frames in half. The biggest partnership we have seen is between BMW and Mercedes. The car giants aim to build fully autonomous, consumer-targeted production vehicles as early as 2024. Another surprising collaboration has been between Toyota and Suzuki this summer. These unprecedented alliances mean that car brands which are usually in stiff competition with one another, are now sharing knowledge and working side by side to develop the required technology at a competitive rate.

The 5 stages to automation 

There is still some confusion as to what exactly a driverless car is. This seems to stem from the fact that there are several stages to automation and not all car makers are looking to produce fully automated vehicles.

Stage 1 as actually been around since the 1990’s. It involves technologies such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance and autonomous emergency braking. The key here is that the driver and electronics share control of the car.

Stage 2 allows autonomous technology to assume full control of steering and braking in controlled circumstances, such as motorway driving or parking. This is currently the most advanced and most commercially available type around and can be seen with the BMW 7 series, Mercedes S-Class and the latest Tesla Model S. If the electronics are unable to deal with a situation the driver must be ready to regain control. 

Stage 3 and 4 should be available from 2021 and involves “conditional” and “high” automation on dedicated stretches of motorway. The key to these stages is that the electronics can take complete control of all functions without the drivers supervision. Yet, with stage 3 the driver is expected to regain control in ‘extenuating circumstances’, while with level 4 the autonomous technology will be capable of responding to all incidents. 

Stage 5 is an extremely challenging step, but it’s thought we should see this type of automation by 2025. This advancement will see vehicles able to complete an entire journey on its own in both motorway and city settings, and most importantly without any input from the driver at any time. This means that while current driverless cars have conventional pedals and a steering wheel, eventually we could see these eliminated in fully autonomous vehicles. 

Autonomous Vehicles

What purpose could self-driving cars serve?

A study recently conducted by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) found that one of the biggest benefits behind driverless cars is the mobility it could offer to people currently unable to drive. The research suggested that over half of those with limited mobility would benefit from this type of vehicle. 

However, while autonomous cars are being produced to reduce the number of accidents caused by human drivers, it’s thought that the technology behind the motors could have a negative impact on human driving over time. Since testing began we’ve seen many accidents between conventional cars with drivers and those boasting the latest autonomous tech, showing that a mix of the two on our roads could be dangerous.  

A tricky legal minefield 

There are a lot of legal considerations and practicalities where self-driving cars are concerned. For example, the introduction of new insurance policies would be required, as one of the biggest questions is who would be liable in the event of an accident – the driver or the manufacturer? Some major insurers have already suggested extended compulsory motoring insurance to cover product liability, but also to protect any motorists who experience software malfunctions while they are not in control of their vehicle. On the other hand, Volvo have stated that they will provide their own form of insurance for autonomous vehicles.

MOT testing may need to be revised to ensure new car systems can be tested efficiently and that roadworthiness standards are adhered to. While the UK is currently paving the way for autonomous research, there are still huge challenges to overcome. It will be a long time before a balance is struck between manufacturers finding the technology needed and lawmakers providing the necessary legislation to ensure the utmost safety of these cars on public roads. 

What plans do the big manufacturers have?

BMW have ambitious plans, hence the partnership with rival car manufacturer, Mercedes. They aim to produce a level 4 autonomous car by 2024 and have also joined forces with many tech companies in order to achieve their goal. 

Volvo unveiled a fully autonomous version of their XC90 earlier this year. It was production ready and built specifically for Uber who plan to buy thousands of the models between 2019 and 2021.

Tesla has been at the forefront of driverless technology for a while now as they already offer a system close to level 3 automation across their range. This ‘autopilot’ system as it’s known is constantly under development and so is their research into advances in this technology. CEO Elon Musk claims that drivers will be able to fall asleep safely behind the wheel of a Tesla by 2021. 

Jaguar Land Rover has been testing driverless cars since 2017. The British car manufacturers have an impressive development programme when it comes to self-driving systems. Recently they announced plans for a display system which will project the vehicles intentions and direction of travel onto the road for other users to see.

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