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What are driverless cars?

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…

Written by
Julie Daniels
Motor insurance comparison expert
Reviewed by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
30 JUNE 2023
7 min read
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What is a driverless car?

A driverless (or self-driving) car is a fully automated vehicle that can get from A to B safely without a human touching the steering wheel.

Driverless cars are operated by artificial intelligence. In this case, a smart system responds intelligently to the road the way a human driver would. They’re sometimes known as autonomous cars as they’re capable of understanding their environment without needing human involvement.

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

How do self-driving 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 in driverless cars varies among manufacturers. These vehicles 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 autonomous 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 94% 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.

Are self-driving 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 fingerprint and iris scanning.

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. 

What rules apply to driverless cars? 

The Department for Transport (DfT) allows driverless cars to be tested on public roads. This is 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. However, it will still be illegal to use hand-held mobile phones in self-driving mode.

The rules also 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.

When will driverless cars be available in the UK?

The government has launched an ambitious plan that could see self-driving vehicles on UK roads by 2025. The government’s vision for driverless vehicles is backed by £100 million, including £34 million for research into safety.

The motor insurance industry is also a key driver in autonomous vehicle testing. Working closely with Thatcham Research and vehicle manufacturers, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) is focusing heavily on safety standards, regulations and the development of safety technology in autonomous vehicles.

According to the ABI and Thatcham Research, clear safety standards need to be in place before driverless vehicles are made available to the UK public.

There’s still a lot more work to be done, so the government’s 2025 target may be optimistic. In reality, it could be a few more years before fully autonomous cars are widely available in this country.

However, certain safety 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.

    According to Thatcham Research, AEB has been shown to reduce the number of vehicle collisions by 38%.
  • 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.

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. This outlined 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 compare new deals on your car insurance with us.

How much will it cost to insure a driverless car?

It’s impossible to say until driverless cars are fully legal on UK roads. But it is possible 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 may reward owners with a reduction in their premium.

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Julie Daniels - motor insurance comparison expert

Julie is passionate about delivering a great customer experience and rewarding people for saving on their insurance through our loyalty and rewards programme. She’s spoken to the media, including outlets like Sky News and Capital FM, about car and home insurance, as well as our rewards scheme.

Learn more about Julie

Rory Reid - car and technology expert

Rory Reid is a car and technology expert. He serves as the main presenter on Auto Trader’s YouTube channel and was previously a host on BBC Top Gear and its sister show Extra Gear. He is also a presenter on Fifth Gear. Previously, he hosted Sky TV’s Gadget Geeks, CNET’s Car Tech channel, BBC Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition and on the YouTube channel Fast, Furious & Funny.

Learn more about Rory

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