What is a driverless car?

In theory, driverless cars will be the next big thing on the UK’s roads. But are they the real deal or just a pipe dream? Does the technology actually work? And how will they affect the Highway Code and car insurance? Let’s take a look…

In theory, driverless cars will be the next big thing on the UK’s roads. But are they the real deal or just a pipe dream? Does the technology actually work? And how will they affect the Highway Code and car insurance? Let’s take a look…

Alex Hasty
Insurance and finance expert
minute read
Do you know someone who could benefit from this article?
Last Updated 7 SEPTEMBER 2022

What is a driverless car?

A completely driverless (or self-driving) car is one that can get from A to B safely without a human touching the steering wheel. Driverless cars are operated by artificial intelligence – not the kind of sci-fi AI that can hold a conversation, but a smart system that responds intelligently to the road the way a human driver would. 

It’s hard to imagine right now, but drivers could soon be watching TV while travelling to work.

How do driverless cars work? 

Driverless cars are equipped with a GPS system to tell them where to go, plus a vast array of sensors and cameras to detect what’s going on around them. These can spot objects and hazards, such as other vehicles, pedestrians, animals, traffic lights and road markings, then automatically brake, accelerate or steer as they react to the situation. 

The specific technology used varies among manufacturers but, in essence, driverless cars are designed to make smart decisions based on experience, rather than following a set of pre-programmed instructions. 

Models currently being tested have controls for a human driver to take over – but that could change as the technology develops in the future. Driverless cars may also share information with each other to improve traffic flow and prevent accidents. 

Why do we need driverless cars? 

Self-driving cars have huge potential to change our lives for the better. Benefits include: 

  • Safety – by removing human error, which contributes to more than 88% of accidents, driverless cars could make our roads vastly safer… as long as they do their job properly.
  • Time-saving – the average driver makes around 300 trips a year. Think of what you could do while your car drives itself – eat a good breakfast, take up meditation or prepare for that meeting you’re on the way to.
  • Greener travel – driverless cars could communicate with each other, sensing where they are in relation to other cars and using traffic information to plot the most efficient route. This, in turn, would reduce congestion and emissions produced by idling engines in traffic jams.
  • Better connections for rural communities – providing on-demand services to link up with public transport.
  • Accessibility – some people struggle with independent mobility, particularly the elderly and those with disabilities that prevent them from driving. Others simply aren’t comfortable behind the wheel. Being mobile brings people together and opens up opportunities to interact with others.

What are the levels of autonomous driving in driverless cars? 

Some cars are more self-sufficient than others. In an effort to clarify the different types of self-driving vehicle, American standards organisation SAE International has published a classification system identifying six distinct levels of autonomy.

Level 0: No driving automation

All driving tasks are performed by the driver.

Level 1: Driver assist

Most driving tasks are still controlled by the driver, but one aspect of driving – such as cruise control or lane assistance – can be performed automatically.

Level 2: Partial automation

The car can take over some aspects of driving, but the driver still needs to be engaged with their surroundings. Partial self-driving features include automatic emergency braking and lane assistance.

Level 3: Conditional automation

The car can cover nearly all aspects of driving itself, but only in certain environments, for example, on motorways and for very limited periods. The driver must take back control if needed.

Level 4: High automation

The car drives automatically without needing input from the driver, although there must still be a human on board. It can operate this way in most environments, but not all.

Level 5: Full automation

A level 5 car doesn’t need any involvement from the driver. It’s able to complete all driving tasks, under any conditions, and understand all scenarios, including traffic jams. The car wouldn’t need a steering wheel or pedals.

What are the risks of driverless cars?

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has warned of risks involved in automation, especially while cars still require humans to take over in an emergency. These include: 

  • Task allocation – there’s a temptation to automate easy driving tasks and leave more challenging ones to humans
  • Disengagement – a lack of practice makes people slower and less skilled if and when they’re needed to intervene
  • Cognition – drivers could become bored and get distracted at critical moments if they’re not continually engaged in the act of driving
  • Control – people need to know when and how to intervene to take control. 

Are driverless cars available to buy now? 

No, not yet, although features of driverless tech that assist drivers do already exist in some cars. These include: 

  • Automatic emergency braking (AEB) – now a standard feature on most family cars, AEB can sense if a collision is about to happen and apply the brakes automatically. Some systems can detect pedestrians and animals too.
  • Adaptive cruise control (ACC) – this maintains a set distance away from the car in front to keep pace with the traffic and stop you from getting too close to other vehicles.
  • Lane assist – this steers you back into your lane if you start to drift, perhaps through a lack of concentration or drowsiness.
  • Parking assist – many new cars have this popular feature, which uses an array of sensors and cameras to park your car for you. It will scan the space before steering itself in, if it’s suitable, with the driver keeping full control of the pedals.

When might we see driverless cars in the UK?

In the 2017 Budget, the former chancellor Philip Hammond pledged that fully driverless cars would be on UK roads by 2021. But that target wasn’t met – partly due to the pandemic, of course.

A lot still needs to happen before the dream becomes a reality, although the first wave of cars, lorries and coaches with self-drive technology could be allowed on UK motorways by 2023, the government says. And it has announced plans for the wider roll-out of self-driving vehicles by 2025, backed by £34 million for research into safety.

The Highway Code is being updated because current laws will need to change to cope with the new technology. So far, the government has announced that cars fitted with automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) will be allowed to drive at up to 37mph in a single lane on a congested motorway without a driver steering. But the driver must be able to take over if necessary.

Government-backed trials of autonomous cars have taken place in London, Bristol, Coventry and Milton Keynes, while Volvo, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover have also carried out their own tests on UK roads.

So, the race is on to bring self-driving cars to the UK and progress is certainly being made, but it could be a few more years yet before fully autonomous cars are widely available in this country.

What’s happening elsewhere?

The biggest advances in driverless cars are happening in the USA and China. There’s a number of companies, including Google and Tesla, running tests of driverless cars out on public roads, with human drivers behind the wheel as back-up. Some cars have even been tested without a human safety driver. Apple is also rumoured to be working on a fully autonomous self-driving car.

Waymo, the autonomous driving brand of Google’s parent company Alphabet, currently offers a driverless taxi-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona. In March 2022, the scheme was extended to San Francisco.

But, as it stands, there still isn’t a completely driverless car on the market. So, the day when you ride in a car without a steering wheel is still some way off, although the technology is slowly but surely creeping into everyday travel.

What rules apply to driverless cars? 

The Department for Transport (DfT) allows driverless cars to be tested on public roads, as long as they have a human operator ready to take control of the car if necessary. 

In April 2022, the DfT set out changes to the Highway Code following a public consultation and a review by Britain’s law commissioners. Under the proposals, human drivers won’t be held responsible if an autonomous vehicle is involved in a crash. Instead, insurance providers will be liable for claims in such circumstances. 

The DfT also intends to allow drivers to watch TV shows and films on built-in screens while using self-driving cars at certain speeds. But the rules will make it clear that the user should be ready to take back control of the car if prompted. 

A full regulatory framework is expected to be in place by 2025. 

Are driverless cars safe?

Several crashes involving driverless vehicles have hit the headlines in recent years, some even fatal. But, statistically at least, autonomous cars are a lot safer than cars with a human at the wheel. They stick to the rules of the road and don’t get tired or distracted.

Nevertheless, there’s still a huge question mark over whether driverless cars can safely navigate public roads. And there are actions driverless cars may find more difficult than human drivers, including:

  • Recognising hand-signals from police directing traffic.
  • Telling the difference between dangerous debris and harmless litter on the road.
  • Seeing potholes.
  • Responding to temporary traffic lights.

But as the miles rack up and incidents go down, there are indications that the technology is getting safer in the physical sense.

The other big safety worry is whether driverless cars can be taken over by malicious hackers. This is something still being worked out – there are security measures in place in current driverless cars but, given time, hackers can usually overcome any system. It will be up to cybersecurity experts to stay one step ahead. One solution could be biometric data such as fingerprints and iris scanning.

How will driverless car insurance work?

They might not be common on UK roads yet, but the Government has already passed the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018, outlining regulations for the insurance of driverless cars.  

The bill states that insured automated vehicles will be covered for accidents that happen while the car’s artificial intelligence (AI) is driving. If they’re not properly insured, the car’s owner will be liable.  

The bill is also specific about the car’s software. Insurance will be void if car owners make certain tweaks to the software or if they don’t install what have been described as ‘safety-critical’ software updates. 

Insurance providers will more than likely consider different levels of automation when quoting for driverless car insurance. 

Exactly what car insurance for fully autonomous cars will be like isn’t known just yet – but while you’re stuck with your ordinary human-driven car, you could cheer yourself up by comparing new deals on your car insurance. 

How much will it cost to insure a driverless car?

It’s impossible to say until driverless cars are fully legal on UK roads. It's possible, however, that self-driving cars might cut insurance costs for car owners. It’s thought that reducing human error will lead to fewer accidents. If that’s true, insurance providers will probably reward owners with a reduction in their premium.

Compare car insurance Get a quote