Driverless cars in the UK

In theory, driverless cars will be the next big thing on the UK’s roads. But is it the real deal or a pipe dream? Does the technology actually work? And what are driverless cars anyway? Let’s take a look….

In theory, driverless cars will be the next big thing on the UK’s roads. But is it the real deal or a pipe dream? Does the technology actually work? And what are driverless cars anyway? Let’s take a look….

Daniel Hutson
Head of Motor Insurance
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Posted 14 JANUARY 2020

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.

Driverless cars are equipped with GPS to tell them where to go, and a vast array of sensors and cameras to detect what’s going on around them. Models currently being tested have controls for a human driver to take over – but that could change as the technology develops in the future.

Why do we need them?

  • The clearest advantage is safety – by removing human error, the cause at least in part of more than 90% of accidents, driverless cars could make our roads vastly safer… as long as they do their job properly.
  • We could save six working weeks a year – the average driver spends a whopping 235 hours just driving. Think of what you could do while your car drove itself – eat a good breakfast, take up meditation, or prepare for that meeting you’re rushing to.
  • Journeys could be more efficient – 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. In turn, this would reduce congestion and emissions produced by idling engines in traffic jams.
  • We could live happier, less isolated lives – 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.

When might we see driverless cars in the UK?

In the 2017 Budget, Chancellor Phillip Hammond promised driverless cars would be on UK roads by 2021. The government threw its weight behind the idea, announcing £22m for research and development of driverless vehicle technology. It’s part of a strategy to keep the UK at the forefront of technology post-Brexit. Some of the groups receiving government grants to help develop the technology are already promising a fleet on the road by 2019.

A lot needs to happen before the dream becomes a reality. Driving laws are undergoing a review – current laws will need to change to cope with the new technology. Car companies are vying to have the technology ready first, and various government-backed trials are going ahead, including on the busy streets of London

Plus, it might take some work to get the general public comfortable with the idea – in a survey in 2017, only 10% of people said they would definitely use a driverless car, whereas 15% said they definitely wouldn’t. 

What’s happening elsewhere?

The biggest advances in driverless cars are happening across the Atlantic in the USA. There are a number of companies running tests of driverless cars out on public roads, with human drivers behind the wheel as backup. Some cars have even been tested without a human safety driver.

Completely autonomous driverless cars could be a reality very soon. As of mid-2018, Waymo (leader of the pack in driverless car companies) seems on the verge of rolling out its first driverless fleet in the US. They plan to offer a ride hailing service where you call a car using an app on your phone, rather than selling driverless cars to the public. If all goes to plan, people in Phoenix, Arizona, could be hailing driverless cars by the end of 2018.

Are driverless cars safe?

The companies making driverless cars got a wakeup call in March 2018, when a woman was killed by a driverless Uber in Temple, Arizona. The car’s safety driver wasn’t paying attention, and the car failed to recognise a pedestrian crossing the street.

It’s not just pedestrian-spotting technology that struggles. There are things driverless cars may find much more difficult than human drivers, such as:

  • 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.

There has also been speculation that some accidents involving collisions with driverless cars and human drivers have been caused by what humans might consider over-cautious driving by the autonomous vehicle. The self-driving car might stop abruptly to be safe, only to be rear-ended by a human driver who expected the car to zip through a gap.

There’s still a huge question mark over whether driverless cars can safely navigate public roads. But as the miles rack up and incidents go down, there are indications that the technology is getting safer in the physical sense.

But, the other big safety worry is can driverless cars 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.

What about driverless car insurance?

Looking to the future, it seems a strong possibility that there will be driverless car insurance. In fact, the Government has already put out proposals for how it will work – for example, you won’t be surprised to hear that adapting the self-driving software would invalidate your insurance policy.

What car insurance for driverless 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.

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