Driverless cars: when will self-driving cars be available?

Driverless cars are meant to be a few years away - as they have been for a decade. When will self-driving cars really be on the road?

BuyaCar team
Oct 27, 2021

Driverless cars might seem like a distant figment of our imagination, but they are far closer to appearing on our roads than you might think. According to optimistic forecasts by the government, you could be hailing driverless taxis from as early as the mid 2020s.

There have been several trials of self-driving cars, with the likes of Tesla pushing the boundaries of autonomous driving technology to try and make the vision of driverless cars a reality sooner rather than later.

A recently-updated code of conduct from the Department for Transport permits driverless car trials on public roads, as long as an operator is ready to take control - either in or out of the vehicle, and plans are being drawn up to allow less strictly supervised driverless car tests.

There's no shortage of ideas for how autonomous cars could operate. Google's brand Waymo has already started a self-driving taxi service in Arizona and will install its equipment in up to 20,000 electric Jaguar I-Paces as the service rolls out.

Volkswagen, Nissan, Mercedes and Renault are among the latest manufacturers to show off driverless concept cars. Tesla continues to promise that fully self-driving cars are just around the corner and even Volvo has a wild concept car called the 360c (below) that is completely autonomous, promising buyers a mobile office that they can sleep in.

But as the dates set out by the UK government approach, the air of optimism around driverless cars is evaporating. The talk at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas - a key showcase for driverless technology - was of dampening expectations that the arrival of self-driving cars was imminent. Artificial intelligence still can't come close to a human driver when it comes to the challenges of navigating potholed and poorly marked streets,

The most prominent voice was that of John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, whose driverless taxi service still has a human driver in the front seat. He said that we are probably “decades” away from fully self-driving cars being common on roads, and even then, they will need a driver behind the wheel in poor weather, as sensors may not work properly in rain and snow.

DR Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota's Research Institute, charged with developing an autonomous system for the Japanese manufacturer spoke cautiously about its arrival. "This is a wonderful goal, and someday we may achieve it," he said.

So the day that you’ll summon a car without a steering wheel, hop in and lie down for a snooze is still some way off - and some experts believe it may never happen - but the technology is slowly creeping into the cars on our roads.

Partial driverless technology available today

There are dozens of cars with partial self-driving technology on sale now, although this term can be misleading because they are only capable of assisting drivers - not taking control of a vehicle. Increasingly common features like adaptive cruise control and and steering assist means they can accelerate, brake and steer themselves on motorways - under the close supervision of a human driver.

These cars are still at the lower end of the autonomous scale, drawn up the Society of Automotive Engineers, a professional engineering association aiming to advance mobility solutions. According to them, there are five distinct levels of autonomous car.

They are classified as Category 2 autonomous cars, above those in Category 1, which can only take over one element of driving (e.g. the accelerator).

But because they need constant supervision from a human driver, there’s no production car on sale in Britain, which meets the criteria for Category 3. Category 3 cars can drive themselves on certain roads, but a driver needs to be behind the wheel ready to intervene if necessary.

Above these are Category 4 and 5 cars, which don’t need steering wheels because they drive themselves, all of the time.

We’re pretty far away from those highest levels of autonomy, but the intent is certainly there. Millions of pounds are being pumped into ventures by businesses, all hoping to be the first to crack these levels.

Toyota plans to invest £382 million in Uber to help develop self-driving cars. Whereas rival car manufacturers BMW and VW are even willing to work together to make an industrial alliance to standardise autonomous vehicle systems.

Driverless cars in the UK

In short, Level 1 autonomous cars are available right now here in the UK. Even humble hatchbacks like the Volkswagen Polo offer adaptive cruise control as an option. This can adjust the car’s speed to keep a safe distance from the car in front.

Level 2 autonomy is increasingly an option from manufacturers including BMW, Hyundai, and Ford, with systems like lane keep assistance, which uses cameras to monitor white road markings and steers automatically to keep your car in its lane. A host of Mercedes models, including the smallest of its range, the A-Class, have an active lane keeping assist that will change lanes for you on a motorway or dual carriageway when you use the indicators.

Toyota is currently working on a system that it calls Toyota Guardian. This assistance system is aimed at helping a driver avoid potential crashes, by partially taking control.

Although still in development, the system will register any hazards, and will assist the driver with corrective steering, acceleration, and braking responses. The idea is that the Guardian will collaborate with a human driver to “nudge them back into a safe corridor”.

Level 3 autonomy is a big step forward because this requires cars to drive themselves without any driver supervision in certain situations.

Audi says that its A8 (pictured) is capable of this level of driving. It has developed a system called Traffic Jam Pilot, which has sensors and software that enables it to travel in traffic on motorways at up to 37mph, with the driver’s hands off the wheel. The driver, does need to be behind the wheel and alert, however, and they will get audible warnings when they need to take back over.

You can’t buy an A8 with the system in Britain, though, because the technology raises some tricky legal questions - which remain unanswered. What happens, for example, if the car causes a fatal accident with a reckless manoeuvre in autonomous mode? Is the driver charged with a criminal offence? Or Audi?

Ian Forbes, head of the Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, says: “One of the biggest things impeding self-driving cars is the law and things associated with that, including insurance. The law commission will publish its thoughts on broad areas of law soon, and they have a lot of knotty problems to tackle.

“For instance, what will happen with criminal liability?  It’s difficult to put a car in the dock.”

The government is in the process of a three-year law review about autonomous cars, set to finish in 2021. The biggest challenge to autonomous cars in the UK is the existing law system, which states a human must be responsible for being in full control of a car. 

In the meantime, Audi is waiting for legislation to change before introducing it here, and other manufacturers are set to follow.

“In the next five years we will see a lot of growth in the use of Level 2 and Level 3 autonomous systems,” says Steve Moyer, Chassis Systems Engineer for Bosch, which supplies components including software for driverless cars.

“There is huge scope for regular cars in the £30,000 sector to incorporate really useful autonomous tech.

“Level 2 and 3 technology that allows you to take your hands off the wheel on the motorway will drastically improve people’s lives. And it’ll be coming to cars used by loads of people soon", adds Moyer.

However, not all manufacturers are planning to launch a Level 3 car. Volvo, for example has said that switching from autonomous to manual control in a few seconds is likely to prove dangerous, as drivers find themselves plunged straight into driving without much preparation.

It plans to move straight from the Level 2 technologies it offers in its current cars, to Level 4, which it plans to launch in the XC90 in 2021.

During the early stages the driver must keep their hands on the steering wheel. More advanced systems will then be tested off the public roads, negating the need for legal changes.

Companies in the UK have also been busy testing on public roads. Jaguar Land Rover was the first British company to do this as part of a government-backed Autodrive project. The test saw a group of autonomous Range Rovers navigate themselves around Coventry, with a driver behind the steering wheel.

A start-up company called FiveAI has also been granted permission by local authorities to conduct a 10-month trial around London. Five FiveAI cars will travel around Bromley and Croydon to gather data and ‘train’ its self-driving cars, by 2019. All vehicles will have human drivers behind the wheel.

The future of driverless cars

The rise of technology is hard to measure, and even experts disagree on what we’ll be seeing in the future. Even the short term future has pundits trading blows in what’s achievable and what isn’t.

Paul Campion, CEO of Transport Systems Catapult, says: "In five years we’ll mostly have the same roads and the same vehicles. So short term, we won’t see that much change.”

However, many experts, like Steve Moyer believe that there will be big changes even in the near future. Moyer says: “We’ll possibly have Level 3 cars on the UK roads within the next five years.”

While the arguments rage, the technology moves on. The wide, straight highways of America are home to some of the most advanced test vehicles on earth, where established manufacturers mix with tech titans in a race to develop the world’s first commercially-viable driverless car.

Packed with arrays of sensors and computers that can analyse vast amounts of data each second, these test cars aren’t cheap. American experts say that fitting this technology to a production car will cost around £190,000, or $250,000.

Waymo, Google’s self-driving car business, started its own taxi business in Arizona, USA, in December last year. Users order a robotaxi via an app, with a human driver behind the wheel to intervene in an emergency. Not to be outdone by Google, Apple is also working on an autonomous car. Reports suggest Apple currently has a test fleet of 62 vehicles and 87 drivers, and other reports suggest it is working with VW to incorporate Apple software into some of its forthcoming vehicles.

It’s not all gone smoothly though. There have been several Waymo crashes in the USA, although the company says that all of them are driver-related errors. A pedestrian was also killed by an autonomous Uber in June 2018. Although, the ‘safety operator’ behind the wheel was later have been found of watching a TV programme instead of the road.

Bosch has recently teamed up with Mercedes to run a small fleet of driverless S-Class saloons and V-Class vans in California later this year.

“Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles will be massively expensive and out of the reach for most people to start with,” says Moyer.

“So expect cars with these systems to be bought and used by businesses first rather than consumers, for instance, taxis will surely be the early adopters of these types of cars.”
The near future of driverless vehicles, experts suggest, seems to be in public transport, sticking to specified, predictable, well marked routes, which can be mapped out in detail."

So the first driverless cars you see on the roads may not be the sleek, stylised concept cars shown at motor shows, but slow-moving pods that will take you from the train station to work.

These pods work in the same way as a small bus, along designated routes, albeit without a driver.

British company Westfield has been trialling its driverless pods as a ‘final mile’ solution in various locations. In London, it’s being trialled in Greenwich, where it travels at 5.5mph along the bike lane next to the river along the Peninsula in the south-east of the city. The public can use them for small trips.   

The future of the steering wheel

Designing a concept car without a steering wheel - such as the concept Chevrolet Bolt - is a surefire way of attracting publicity, but car manufacturers’ vision of the future might have to wait.

Will the steering wheel be canned in the near future? It doesn’t look likely.

Even Level 4 cars need steering wheels as these types of cars work best in busy, well-signposted cities, or large expansive motorways. In between, eg. towns and villages, they can get befuddled by the lack of signs and might need someone to take over.

Phil Morse is the technical liaison and international manager for Ansible Motion, a leader in driving simulators that simulate autonomous cars. He says: “There are many ideas of what a steering wheel might be in the future floating around at the moment. Variations include ones that have displays built-in, and ones that can be folded away.

“The idea is still conceptual at the moment though. We certainly haven’t done any testing with them.”

Future driverless cars

Nearly all car manufacturers are working on fully autonomous models, yet all remain tight-lipped on exact dates of release.

Mercedes’ striking all-autonomous concept vehicle, called the F015, is an autonomous moving lounge, with seats that can face each other and screens on the doors. Its simple boxy shaped designed to enhance the size of the interior.

The Renault Symbioz concept car (pictured) shows what a Level 4 vehicle might look like. The driver wouldn’t need to have their hands on the steering wheel, so it’s fitted with sensors and cameras, and while it was being tested on French motorways in 2017, it also took data from five antenna that were installed along the motorway. Don’t expect to see it on UK roads anytime soon though.

As mentioned above, Toyota is working with Uber, and Fiat-Chrysler is working with Waymo. These big tech companies may be aiming to make their own cars in the long term, but in the short term they are looking to supply technology to manufacturers rather than building their own cars.

How soon will we have fully driverless cars?

This really depends on who you speak to. Some people say that we’re a couple of years away, while some think it will never happen. In 2018, the Government announced a regulatory review, aimed at getting autonomous cars on British roads by 2021.

However, manufacturers were saying that fully driverless cars were a few years away, a few years ago. And while technology is progressing, there are still no driverless car services available in Britain, while legislation has still got to catch up with Audi’s Level 3 technology, let alone fully driverless vehicles.

Toyota’s fully autonomous system, currently in the works, is called Toyota Chauffeur. In terms of autonomous levels, it is designed to sit at number five, and aims to replace the human driver completely.

Earlier this year, Toyota announced that it will start testing its Chauffeur (as well as its Guardian) service in a heavily modified Lexus LS-500h, but Dr Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota’s Research Institute, has only said that we may see it on the roads "someday".

Combined with the weary realism of John Krafcik from Waymo, which has carried out more than 10 million miles of driverless testing, it seems clear that you won't be handing in your driving licence anytime soon.

Meridian is a company created by the Government to focus on key areas of UK capability for autonomous vehicles. Its Managing Director, Daniel Ruiz, is also sceptical about how soon we’ll see fully autonomous cars.  He says: “While there will be deployment of autonomous tech in moderately controlled environments soon, like a shuttle service in retirement community, personally I think that dominance of autonomous vehicles is many many many years off.”

The change of the car buying model because of driverless cars

The high cost of driverless cars alone is expected to mean that the first vehicles on Britain’s streets will be taxi-style pods that you hail via a phone app.

As the price of technology reduces, private ownership of driverless cars will be more feasible, but manufacturers aren’t sure whether anyone will want to own a car that they never drive.

That’s why most are hedging their bets and developing ride-sharing services that will offer a nearby car at any time, without any running costs when they aren’t being used.

Volkswagen has recently confirmed that it will build a car it calls the I.D. Buzz, which looks a bit like a minibus. It’s thought that this car will be the figurehead for Volkswagen’s ride-sharing business called MOIA.

Daimler, parent company of Mercedes, already owns a car pooling service called car2go, and a ride-hailing app called MyTaxi. The vehicles currently need a driver but the technology behind the service could form the basis of a driverless fleet.

It's a similar story with Ford, which is rolling out a commuter shuttle service called Chariot. This ‘microtransit’ scheme, which has recently launched in London, is app-based, and allows users can reserve a seat in a Ford Transit Minibus.

Paul Campion, says: “ The idea of a bus or taxi is a regulatory construct, and the regulation defines the market. The way of thinking about mobility is going to change.” 

If that sounds complex, don’t worry, it’s not. Big ride sharing autonomous vehicles will work a bit like a bus, but are generally expected to be more flexible as they won’t have fixed destinations. Destinations will be user-generated - and the vehicle can tell when it’s full, and people will be able to reserve seats.

Even Mercedes’ boss, Dieter Zetsche, says: “The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space.”

The future of driverless cars then. Driverless yes, but cars, maybe not so much.


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