The idea of driverless cars on British roads was, until recently, a futuristic notion fuelled by Scientists doing what they do best and pushing the boundaries of technology.
Now driverless cars are a step closer. While Google are widely credited with leading the charge, other manufacturers such as Volvo and Mercedes-Benz are keenly developing features which will appeal to motorists - and ultimately help with the transition from the driver being completely in control to, well, not.
Are we likely to see driverless cars on public roads anytime soon?
That depends on the ability of each country to develop, test and build infrastructure, as well being the responsibility of governments and the wider insurance industry to answer questions around road use and liability in the event of any accidents.
And, while this dynamic is playing out, keep up to date with developments through Lookers driverless cars news - available on this page and regularly updated - it contains everything you ever wanted to know about the road ahead for this high tech development.
Used to being in control, will this change of status frustrate drivers?
The journey of the car has been as thrilling as some of the roads they drive on. They have shaped our lives, our culture and even our hobbies. While we may know about their history, can any of us really be certain about their future?
There are times in life when we are fortunate to witness a genuine game changer. Imagine what it must have felt like making a telephone call, listening to the radio, or seeing that first car in 1886 careering at the heady speed of 10 miles per hour, all for the first time. With no reference points the experiences would likely have been mind-blowing for most people.
And of course in many ways the more things change the more they stay the same. Fast forward 130 years and the love affair we have with technology is as enduring and fascinating as ever. Regardless of the point in history new inventions are often viewed with a mix of awe, excitement and speculation. While living in the moment, it can be easy to miss the power of an innovation revolution. And so it is with the driverless car. Its evolution has crept up on most of us as quietly as the electric engines which power them.
What do car owners make of this new technology?
We at Lookers have helped to answer that question by recently asking in a survey of 1,120 people, ‘Would you occupy a driverless car?’ Respondents, in the main, were very positive. Of those who replied, 71 percent said yes, while 29 percent responded negatively.
Speaking of the results, Lookers Digital Marketing Manager, Gordon Campbell, remarked: “This is very exciting data. It tells us that people are starting to warm to the idea of driverless cars, the barriers are coming down if you like, and by the time these vehicles reach the mainstream, drivers are more likely to accept the positives that the technology offers.”
While Google are credited with moving the concept forward, experiments attempting to automate cars have been reported as far back as the 1950’s, although it wasn’t until 30 years later that scientists started to trial capabilities more rigorously.
The 1980’s weren’t all big hair and shoulder pads. During that time early versions of self-sufficient cars appeared, such as those developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Navlab and Bundesweher University Munich’s EUREKA Project in 1987.
Since then, numerous companies and research organizations have developed working prototype autonomous vehicles, including Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Continental Automotive Systems, Oxford University and of course, Google.
Where has the road to driverless cars taken us? Well, as of 2016, trials are underway in several countries. In addition to Google’s driverless project, autonomous vehicles are operating on public roads – there is a driverless shuttle bus in Holland– with plans to introduce them in others, e.g. the driverless pods planned for Greenwich, London, this summer.
A key milestone has been reached recently in the journey of the driverless car. It has crossed lanes. From academia into mainstream, we are now seeing government funding in place as well as some infrastructure including 40 miles of roads in Coventry which is expected to be dedicated to further testing. The Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, called the move a "landmark moment".
Industry experts are also predicting big things with estimates of a £51billion boost to the economy. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) the UK is likely to become a hub for manufacturers developing driverless car technology.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, said: “Cars that can drive themselves will transform our society – improving safety and reducing congestion and emissions – and contribute billions to the economy.”
A report commissioned by the SMMT in 2015 revealed that as a result of driverless technology, safety could improve and serious accidents could fall by more than 25,000, in effect saving 2500 lives every year by 2030. Annual saving to consumers by the end of the next decade could be as high as £40 billion, with motorists able to multi-task while behind the wheel, get to their destinations more quickly and save money on fuel, insurance and parking.
This is a very common question. It goes without saying that what makes driverless cars fully autonomous is the ability to accelerate, brake and steer without physically having to touch the wheel or pedal. We may not be at the stage where we can go for a nap in the back whilst being chauffeured around in beautiful, electric silence, but Mercedes, Audi, Volvo and Nissan are blazing a trail.
Mercedes-Benz S-Class takes the lead with cutting-edge technologies, along with the class and sophistication that dignifies its Number One luxury model spot in the UK. The latest S model does not fail to impress with perhaps the most pampering cabin on the market and enough tech to put it in line with autonomous vehicles on the market.
Magic Body Control
The S-Class is the world’s first car to be able to detect and react to bumps thanks to an optional “MAGIC BODY CONTROL” system. This innovative system uses cameras to read the road ahead for bumps or potholes to allow for a smoother ride.
Driver Assistance Package
What is a safe distance to the vehicle in front of you? Are you in lane? This optional package “DISTRONIC PLUS” comes with Steering Assist and Stop&Go features which help the driver maintain a safe distance and stay in lane. If that’s not enough, BAS PLUS comes with Cross-Traffic Assist and PRE-SAFE® Brake helps to reduce the risk of accidents at junctions and in stop-start traffic.
Mercedes-Benz F 015 – Concept Car
There were a few concept cars unveiled this year, which steer towards the autonomous direction. The Mercedes-Benz F 015 could be said to have made the biggest impact. If this image below displaying the in-car lounge experience doesn’t capture the relaxed autonomous future, we don’t know what will. With a variable seating system, four rotating lounge chairs allow face-to-face seating when the car is driving autonomously. However, if you should ever feel like driving manually, you can simply rotate seats to face forward, and when you’re ready to exit the car, the seats automatically swing out 30 degrees when the doors are opened.
Next up, Volvo.
Today, Volvo cars use cutting edge technology to create semi-autonomous cars that make your journey easier and safer, while leaving you completely in control. A great example of this can be seen in the all-new XC90’s Pilot Assist function which can accelerate, brake and steer for you, keeping you a set distance from the car in front and in lane, at speeds up to 50 km/h.
Another feature that is in the driverless direction is City Safety that comes as standard on all Volvo models. This detects other vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians and, in some cases, even large animals on the road ahead and will warn the driver of hazards. If necessary, it will also apply the brakes to avoid or mitigate a collision.
Cars of today can be seen with this feature already, in the form of brake override systems which will stop the car, even if you fail to apply the brakes. This will be advanced in 2020 to allow the car to brake automatically even if the driver has the gas pedal floored.
Nissan are almost there.
Nissan IDS Concept
The Japanese automaker unveiled their autonomous concept car at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show. With the announcement that it will offer partially autonomous vehicles starting as soon as next year and fully autonomous ones by 2020.
The IDS Concept previews key engineering and design technology to be incorporated on future Nissan vehicles. This includes carbon-fiber construction, and a compact, aerodynamic shape, with fin-like vertical fenders front and rear to help the car cut efficiently through the air.
What makes the Nissan concept car stand out against its autonomous counterparts, is its solution to effectively communicate with pedestrians. One example of this is with an outward facing display screen in the dashboard that flashes messages like “After You,” to pedestrians and cyclists.
Last, but not least, Audi.
Audi ‘Autonomous’ A7
Audi’s A7 Sportback is driving proof that autonomous cars are not a thing of future. Currently a piloted driving concept that can be seen going through tests on the German autobahn, the brand believes this tech will be ready to hit the market in two years.
Audi says self-driving cars will bring four main benefits: improving safety, freeing up drivers’ time, increasing efficiency and reducing congestion.
Active Window Displays
The Audi A4 this year added heads-up display for the first time. Coming a long way from the dim, washed out green digits some cars projected on their windscreens 20 years ago. It is predicted that in 2020, we’ll have active glass capable of displaying vibrant images. So advanced that it will tell you whether the traffic signal ahead is green and when it will turn red.
While the reality of being on the road in a fully driverless car is still under development, car owners are nonetheless becoming reliant on new technologies to avoid road accidents.
According to figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) a record number of cars are being fitted with autonomous emergency braking, cruise control that adapts its speed to maintain a safe distance from the car in front, and warning systems that tell drivers if they're about to collide. More than half of the UK's new cars are now sold with some form of autonomous safety technology,
The most popular vehicle safety device is the collision warning system. Comprised of a series of cameras and lasers that monitor obstacles in a car's way, the system is designed to alert the driver with a beep if they're close to colliding. Figures suggest that over 58 percent of new cars were fitted with the devices, compared with just 6.8 percent 5 years before.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of SMMT said: "Fully driverless cars are still a long way off from everyday use, but this data shows advanced autonomous technology is already making its way into the majority of new cars.
"The UK is already earning a reputation as a global development hub in this field, thanks to significant industry and government investment, and the ability to trial these cars on the roads right now."
The SMMT forecasts that the prevalence of autonomous technology in cars will prevent 25,000 serious accidents and save 2,500 lives a year by 2030.
The move to launch Driverless cars on the roads of the UK took a further step forward with the publication of a code of practice allowing them to be tested on public roads. The document - issued by the Department for Transport and aimed at manufacturers - allows for “real-world testing of automated technologies".
And what does “real world" mean in practice? Well, ultimately that driverless cars can be tested in controlled conditions on public roads or other public places. Prior to this however extensive testing should have been completed on private roads.
In line with safety standards it is a requirement to have a human driver in the cabin who could take over if needed, and that, in line with current laws, that driver must be insured, hold a valid UK driving licence, and comply with all of the UK's normal road laws.
The code of practice extends many current obligations and insists that drivers will also need "skills over and above those of drivers of conventional vehicles," including a high level of knowledge about the technology used, as well as extensive training into transitioning between conventional manual control and an automated mode.
Cars are required to be fitted with a "data recording device," which can capture data from the various sensors and control systems used for automated driving, at "10Hz or more." This includes whether the vehicle is operating in manual or automated mode, its speed, steering and braking prompts, operation of lights and indicators, the presence of other road users, and use of the horn. The data should be "securely stored," and if necessary be "provided to the relevant authorities upon request."
In order to not confuse other motorists, drivers will also need to be "conscious of their appearance to other road users," and appear as if they are actually driving—even in automated mode—so talking on your phone would, as it is today, be illegal.
The Code of Practice also suggests that highway authorities are alerted to testing zones, and that a specialised contact is set up with the local police and fire services.
Presently non-statutory in its obligations, the code has been developed to promote responsible testing and is expected to be implemented in conjunction with a detailed knowledge of the legal, regulatory and technological landscape. Failure to follow the Code may be relevant to liability in any legal proceedings however compliance with the Code does not guarantee immunity from liability in such circumstances.
Commenting on the importance of this technology, Transport Minister Claire Perry said:
“Driverless cars are the future. I want Britain to be at the forefront of this exciting new development, to embrace a technology that could transform our roads and open up a brand new route for global investment.
These are still early days but today is an important step. The trials present a fantastic opportunity for this country to take a lead internationally in the development of this new technology."