How far away is our driverless future?

  • The UK government expects automated and driverless vehicles on our roads by the mid-2020s
  • Autonomous vehicle technology is already here, but the infrastructure is still being worked on
  • Motor industry expert Richard Aucock examines the driverless future and how legislation and car insurance may need to change to keep up with technology

Cars that can drive themselves are already here. You can buy a Tesla with autopilot, that will autonomously drive you on the motorway, even change lanes and tackle curves. The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class can do something similar.

In even mainstream executive cars, active cruise control with traffic jam is commonplace: set it at 70mph and the car will trace the one in front as its speed alters, even if it varies from motorway speeds to a standstill and back again.

It’s not just a function of expensive cars either. Nissan has bold ambitions, and next year will sell a British-built Qashqai offered with ProPilot – the firm’s branding for autonomous technologies. By 2020 ProPilot 3.0, will include intersection management, allowing a Nissan Qashqai (the family-friendly crossover you can buy today for less than £20,000) to effectively operate as a driverless car in town through junctions.

In other words, in less than half a decade, a car that meets many people’s definition of ‘driverless’ will be on sale in the UK in a top-five best-seller. That’s how quickly the technology is rolling out. It’s ready. It’s coming. Driverless cars are a reality.

The end of driving?

But, does this mean it’s time for drivers to hang up their gloves and retire? Not a bit of it. Motorists who already have some level of automation in their cars should remember that they are still the driver, and that it is easy to overestimate how much responsibility the computer can/will/should take.

Yes, cars that drive themselves are coming, but the viability of a genuinely ‘driverless’ car is still many decades away. Indeed, this is why the industry prefers the branding autonomous rather than driverless. Stewart Callegari, general manager for Nissan’s advanced planning division, stresses that the introduction will happen step by step, as legislation, mapping companies and simple public perceptions and education catch up.

Even a few years ago, a Mercedes-Benz director revealed to me that most of the sensors to make a self-driving car are already fitted to modern motors, maybe even the one sitting in your driveway right now: it’s everything else that needs to catch up. And this bit, he added, is easier said than done…

UK leads the way

Interestingly, in the UK, it’s a bit easier than in other countries. Like Nissan, the government expects automated and driverless vehicles on our roads by the mid-2020s. By then, basic legislation that demands the driver is in control of their vehicle at all times will have evolved – and the UK has an advantage here, as it never ratified the 1968 Vienna Convention, of which this phrase is a mandate. It means there’s no need to get around the tricky phrase of ‘every moving vehicle shall have a driver’ either.

So, the UK actually has the potential to be a world leader in autonomous vehicle technology, an industry that could be worth £900bn by 2025. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders estimates it could be worth more than £50bn to Britain alone by 2030 (and create 320,000 jobs along the way). Post-Brexit, the benefits of this unique position for Britain are clear to see.

The Queen couldn’t have foreseen Brexit, but she did still pave the way for Britain to lead the way in autonomous cars in the 2016 State Opening of Parliament Queen’s Speech. This introduced the Modern Transport Bill, which aims to “ensure the United Kingdom is at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport, including autonomous and electric vehicles”.

What about car insurance?

The Modern Transport Bill will also clarify car insurance. The government’s intention is for drivers who have ‘handed control’ to autonomous cars to still be insured properly. The car insurer, not the driver would be responsible for deciding if the car was at fault and, if it was, legislation would allow them to claim the money back from the car company. Crucially, motor insurance would remain compulsory for drivers, in the same way as it is today. The government does not intend to change this basic requirement.

Other housekeeping is necessary before autonomous cars become commonplace. There is the well-documented question of who will want to write the code for the ‘moral algorithms’, that decide who to run over in the scenario when a collision is unavoidable, but the number of casualties can be decided, and – importantly for insurers – who is going to provide the PI cover for the tech company that writes that code?

Motoring regulations will need to be changed, as will the Highway Code, to help drivers safely use features such as motorway assist and remote control parking. Arguably, this is overdue, as many such features are fitted to many cars today.

Ultra-precise, constantly updated mapping is required, so cars know exactly where they are to pinpoint accuracy. There’s only so much you can do with lasers, radars and cameras. Autonomous technology also needs artificial intelligence to, say, understand local customs. It needs to know that in Britain, another car flashing its lights usually means ‘come on through’; it should also know that in Europe, it means ‘I’m coming through’. The result of getting it wrong is an autonomous head-on collision.

It’s all this implementation that’s taking the time: driverless cars are a reality, but making them safe and reliable for mass-market roll-out is another matter entirely.

But no matter how far away the driverless future is, one thing is likely to still remain: people’s desire to drive cars on the right roads.

“I can’t ever see people accepting fully driverless cars,” says Nissan’s Callegari. “Even beyond 2030, if they’re faced with a deserted twisty road in the Scottish Highlands, people will still want to drive. And we’re certainly not going to take away the ability for people to do this. Instead, we’re giving them the choice – and it’s the choice to go driverless in an ever-broader number of scenarios, improving safety, convenience and traffic flow. That I think is the really exciting bit.”