Self-driving cars: How they work and when we’ll see them

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New road rules will allow owners to watch TV while behind the wheel of self-driving cars, but how does the technology work and how soon will we see it on our roads?

The changes determine when and where drivers can delegate control of a vehicle to autonomous technology and who is responsible if a self-driving vehicle is involved in an accident.

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The Department for Transport (DfT) says the guidance, along with legislative changes made last year to recognize certain systems as “self-driving”, will put Britain at the forefront of autonomous driving adoption.

We are still a long way from cars without a steering wheel

The expression conjures up images of futuristic steering wheel-less capsules in which passengers can read, chat or watch TV while the car performs the intricate task of getting from A to B. The reality is certainly a lot more boring for the foreseeable future and involves a lot more human input.

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Discussions about self-driving or autonomous cars generally use a set of definitions created by the Society of Automotive Engineers. These range from Level 0, which includes existing systems such as automatic emergency braking, to Level 5, where the ‘driver’ is not responsible for controlling the vehicle and is not required to take control under any circumstances or conditions.

When the DfT speaks of “self-driving” cars, it is referring to vehicles equipped with Automatic Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS), which fall under the SAE Level 3 definition of “bushing”.

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These use a combination of cameras and sensors – radar, lidar or ultrasound – to monitor traffic conditions around the vehicle and adapt its behavior to the conditions. They work in the same way as existing highway assist systems, controlling speed and steering to maintain a safe distance and lane position.

(Image: Society of Automotive Engineers)

The difference is that while current systems are recognized as “assistant” and require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to resume control immediately, ALKS systems allow the operator to fully engage in the driving task to delegate the vehicle.

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This means the driver can take their hands off the wheel and focus on non-driving tasks, including displaying non-driving content on an infotainment screen. It also means that if the car crashes while the system is operating, the driver is not considered responsible and insurers or manufacturers must be held liable.

However, ALKS are still significantly limited. First, the government is proposing that they can only be used on motorways and only up to 60 km/h.

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The driver must still be able to take control “in good time” – previously stated as 10 seconds – when prompted to do so, such as when approaching a motorway exit or when a sensor has a problem.

When will we see self-driving cars on Britain’s roads?

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There is no easy answer to that.

When it changed the law last year, the government claimed it would open the door for ALKS-equipped cars to be on our roads by the end of 2021. That didn’t happen.

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Following the announcement of the Highway Code this week, the DfT again claimed that “Britain’s first self-driving vehicles could be operational as early as this year”.

However, there are currently no cars sold in the UK that meet the generally accepted standards for Level 3 autonomy, and very few worldwide qualify for such recognition.

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Mercedes recently received approval in Germany to use Level 3 systems in its new S-Class, but only on certain pre-mapped sections of the autobahn.

Rival BMW says it is working to have Level 3 autonomy available at launch in its new 7 Series, due later this year.

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Honda has also received Level 3 ALKS approval for the Legend EX in 2021. However, the registration is only valid in Japan and the car will not be sold in Europe.

So barring the possibility of a handful of £100,000 luxury sedans, it’s unlikely we’ll see ‘self-driving’ cars on our roads in 2022.

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Nonetheless, the government plans to have a full regulatory framework in place for the widespread deployment of ALKS technology by 2025.

This should pave the way for the use of more complex and self-sufficient autonomous systems in the future in order to eliminate the human component, which according to the company is responsible for 88% of traffic accidents.

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