With the announcement from Ford that they’ve built a system so that vehicles can travel on thousands of miles of motorway in the UK with apparently no intervention from the driver, are we finally entering the age of autonomy, after many false starts and exaggerated claims?
Well, maybe. Or maybe not.
Ford has launched what it claims to be the most advanced autonomous technology on Britain’s roads, with the introduction of its BlueCruise system. It says that on 2,300 of pre-mapped motorways in the UK, drivers will be able to be ‘hands-off, eye-on’ when travelling in enabled Mustang Mach-E models. Crucially it has met government approval to enable it on certain roads, while it cannot be used in full off these.
The system monitors road markings, speed signs and evolving traffic conditions to control steering, acceleration, braking and lane positioning, as well as to maintain safe and consistent distances to vehicles ahead – right down to a complete halt in traffic jams, and up to the motorway speed limit.
In addition, sophisticated infrared camera technology continually checks driver attentiveness for safety and confidence. With five prescribed autonomous levels, BlueCruise is ranked as a Level 2 system – albeit at the top end of the level.
Ford is competing with Mercedes for the most advanced system on the road. Its next innovation is Drive Pilot, which it says will be the first Level 3 ‘conditionally automated’ system, allowing autonomous driving on certain motorway sections. Already around 10,000 miles of German autobahn have been legally certified for this, as well as some roads in the US state of Nevada. But it hasn’t been signed off in the UK yet.
Mercedes says Drive Pilot will allow the driver to “take their mind off the traffic and focus on certain secondary activities, be it communicating with colleagues via In-Car Office, surfing the internet or relaxing while watching a film. In Drive Pilot mode, applications can be enabled on the vehicle's integrated central display that are otherwise blocked while driving.”
Of course, no conversation about autonomous driving is complete without discussion of Tesla, which has been the most bullish about the possibilities of driverless control. But Tesla’s Autopilot system is level 2 as well, and not as advanced as those offered by the likes of Ford or Mercedes. In fact, in its car manuals, it states: “Never depend on these components to keep you safe. It is the driver's responsibility to stay alert, drive safely, and be in control of the vehicle at all times.”
While the eventual approval of Mercedes’ Drive Pilot will bring us slightly closer to a time when the driver can leave the car to look after itself (and its occupants) entirely, the systems available still must only be used on prescribed routes and under certain conditions. And, only in some countries, and some models.
Again, a warning in the Tesla handbook is instructive: “Depending on market region, vehicle configuration, options purchased, and software version, your vehicle may not be equipped with all Autopilot features listed below, or a feature may not operate exactly as described.”
The fact that almost every automatic assistance system (calling them autonomous might even be ambitious) is Level 2 or below should be a warning to fleets that their drivers cannot expect their vehicles to do all the work for them, or that they are able to stop keeping in close control of the car.
There’s a long way to go until Level 4 or 5 autonomy, in which this is likely. For a start, even in the more advanced Level 3 systems the driver must still be always behind the wheel, and ready to take over.
By Level 4, super-fast data processing, ultra-high definition mapping and car-to-car communication means the person in the driver’s seat (or elsewhere, as you won’t need to be behind the wheel) won’t have to take over control at any point. And it’s likely that anywhere these are allowed to operate will have to be mapped and geofenced first too.
At Level 5, the machine autonomously carrying passengers, probably won’t even look like a car, and it won’t have a steering wheel. But this is for a long way down the road…
Of the many issues with autonomous driving, and one that fleets will have to untangle is hinted at by the Tesla warning above: there’s no exact prescription for technology, cleverness or operation from one manufacturer to another, and even one model to another. So it means that the driver can’t do the one thing that many might expect of autonomous cars – just switch it on and let it drive itself. Even the systems at level 2 have different ways of working and can do different things.
This means that as cars come with greater assistance, they will need clearer guidelines on how to work them. The last thing a business wants is a driver to jump in a car, press go, assume their job is done and cause an accident.
Indeed, in a recent Fleet News poll more than half of fleet managers (55%) said they would be wary of letting their drivers use Ford’s new BlueCruise technology, and speaking at a Fleet News webinar, Paul Hollick, chair of the Association of Fleet Professionals (AFP), said: “Any form of technology which means a driver, through ignorance more than anything, thinks that they don’t need to do something is scary for us as fleet operators.”
That fully autonomous systems will eventually come to market seems likely – after all, it would have seemed impossible that AI bots could write articles such as these (they didn’t write this one!) – but the expert advice seems to be that for the time being, it pays to keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, just in case…