Driverless Cars Explained by James Baggott, Author, Car Dealer Magazine

Driverless cars are a hot motoring topic, with manufacturers, politicians and transport chiefs all talking about them. But what are they, and what do they mean for the future of motoring?

The Government predicts that driverless cars could be in full use on the UK’s roads by 2021.

Are they safe?

The safety of autonomous vehicles was questioned after a woman was killed while crossing the road in front of a self-driving vehicle in Arizona. The issue is the co-habitation of road users and the driverless vehicles – until people are sure how to interact with them, accidents will still happen.

Which manufacturers currently offer some level of autonomous assistance?

You’ll find some partial self-driving technology in cars from Audi, BMW, Citroen, DS, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Land Rover, Lexus, Mazda, Mercedes, Nissan, Peugeot, Porsche, Renault, Seat, Skoda, Subaru, Suzuki, Tesla, Toyota, Vauxhall, Volkswagen and Volvo. Most cars do incorporate the technology, but it can include features such as adaptive cruise control.

Levels of autonomy

The various levels of autonomous assistance are categorised from one to five. Here’s what they mean.

Level 1

Introduced around 1990s/00s

This base level means that just one element of the driving process is taken over by the car – but the driver is still very much in charge. This level of assistance is mature now and was pioneered by early cruise control systems.

Level 2

Present day

Level 2 autonomy represents pretty much where we are today. Computers can deal with multiple functions, so the car can take control of steering, throttle and brake functions – but the driver must show they’re in charge of the car by putting a hand on the steering wheel.

Level 3

Estimated 2020

At level 3 all of the safety-critical functions can be controlled by the car, but the driver must still be able to intervene if necessary – this isn’t completely ‘hands-off’ technology yet.

Level 4

Mid 2020s

Level 4 sees cars capable of being fully autonomous, albeit in selected areas – most likely inner-city ones. Dedicated lane markings and infrastructure will be required to ensure that the cars keep on the straight and narrow too. Complex mapping systems will combine with advanced cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence to determine where the car should go. The driver may have to intervene at certain points, but for the most part it’ll mean hands-free driving.

Level 5

Late 2020s/early 2030s

Level 5 will see the vehicles derestricted – they will be capable of driving anywhere, without the need for a driver. There won’t be a need for a steering wheel or traditional ‘controls’; these vehicles will be fully capable of operating themselves. It’ll free up space inside the cars, so they’ll probably look more like lounges on wheels. That’s what we predict, anyway.

Timeline predictions

This timeline is based on predictions by many different manufacturers, though most agree that the bulk of progress will happen between 2020 and 2030. It’s a real technology race at the moment – each company is attempting to develop their own systems quicker than the rest. It’s why these dates are estimations – some may get there sooner than others.