Are driverless cars *really* becoming a reality?

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There was a bit of a flurry in the news recently about driverless cars. Something about them being on the road by 2021? But that can’t be right surely? Especially with all the delays to our lives that 2020 has brought. Is there any way that we are ready for driverless cars right now?

Well, rest assured. The roads are indeed not going to be full next year of cars racing round with no-one at the wheel! What the recent reports were about were hands-free cars, which are very different from the concept that most people have of driverless cars.

Let’s take a look.


Driverless cars and hands-free cars. What’s the difference?

Cars are becoming increasingly automated and there is a recognised scale of 0 to 5 to describe the level of automation that a car has. This scale goes from 0 to 5, as follows. 



No  automation.      

 Nothing is automated and the driver therefore has to manually perform all the functions of driving.

 Driver assist.         

 The driver still performs most functions but there are some automatic functions available, such as either steering or braking. These systems will assist drivers but still require the driver to be in control. 

 Partial automation   

 Multiple functions can be performed automatically, including steering and speed control. The driver must still have hands on the wheel and be ready to resume control when needed.

Conditional automation   

 Level 3 vehicles are capable of driving themselves in certain conditions, including braking and controlling the steering, and monitoring surroundings. Drivers are required to be behind the wheel but can have hands off.

High automation   

 Level 4 vehicles can drive themselves without human interaction, though do need a human to be on board. But these cars are able to start, drive, monitor surroundings and park in various different conditions. There are currently no cars being produced at this level.
 5 Full automation  Level 5 vehicles do not need any human control, and do not even need pedals or a steering wheel. They should be able to monitor and manoeuvre through any road conditions and scenarios. There are currently no cars being produced at this level.


Driverless car

A level 5 car is probably what most people have in mind when they think of the term “driverless car”. As we have just seen, this kind of car would not need pedals or a steering wheel. Instead, it would use computers to navigate and travel from one destination to another. The car would not only be able to complete the full range of driving tasks, but also to understand all kinds of road scenarios including traffic lights and jams. It would also make informed decisions about what to do in emergency situations.

At present there are no fully autonomous cars. Level 2 is as far as most cars have reached, although the new Audi 8 is now able to reach level 3 autonomy.

But technology is developing quickly, and many cars have one or more of the following features:

  • Lane departure warning
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Auto steer
  • Auto park 
  • Sign recognition


Hands-free car

The hands-free cars currently being discussed are those that have the use of Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS). These are the next step forwards from the lane departure warning technology that we have just mentioned. 

Many cars have lane departure warning technology. This uses either a video camera or infrared sensor to read the road markings and monitor the car’s position within them. It then alerts the driver if their car moves out of its current lane without the indicator being activated. This is in case the driver has lost concentration or even drifted off to sleep. Lane departure warning technology usually consists of a beeping noise and/or vibrating seat to alert the driver.

ALKS takes this a step further. They not only warn the driver but also help to keep the car in its lane without any action from the driver. They do this by correcting the steering wheel so that the car moves back to the centre of the lane. 

ALKS are classed as Level 3 – “conditional automation” – on the above table. They are able to take over control of a vehicle, without driver input. So with the use of ALKS, the car is able to operate hands-free.


So what is happening with hands-free cars?

The recent media attention is because the government has announced that hands-free driving could be legal on UK roads by spring next year. The Department for Transport is currently investigating all aspects of ALKS, and the consultation is due to end on 27th October.

The consultation could result in ALKS being given the go ahead for use at speeds of up to 70mph, meaning that drivers can use it on motorways. 

However, hands-free driving would only apply if you have a Level 3 automated car. The only Level 3 car currently available for public use is the new Audi A8.

But several other brands of car already haveLevel 2 automation. These include:

  • Tesla Autopilot
  • Volvo Pilot Assist
  • Nissan ProPilot
  • BMW Intelligent driving
  • Ford CoPilot 360.


What are the advantages of hands-free cars?

The general consensus amongst experts so far is that hands-free cars will make driving safer. 

The AA welcomes the consultation for this reason, and the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders estimate that automated technologies could prevent 47,000 serious accidents in the next 10 years.

Whilst the consultation is still ongoing, the government’s current position is summed up by Transport Minister Rachel Maclean who says “Automated technology could make driving safer, smoother and easier for motorists, and the UK should be the first country to see these benefits, attracting manufacturers to develop and test new technologies.”


So at this point it seems likely that hands-free driving will be introduced in the UK. Not driverless cars, but a step forward in that ultimate direction.

We will keep you updated in this column, so make sure to check back here soon for more motoring, lifestyle and financial tips from Logbook Loans.