Recently the Government made changes to the Highway Code to allow drivers to watch content such as TV shows and movies on display screens in self-driving cars.
The announcement was accompanied by a statement saying “Britain’s first vehicles approved for self-driving could be ready for use later this year”.
So how close are we to self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles appearing on Britain’s roads?
Well, to some degree, they are already here and have been for a long time, albeit nowhere near the advanced level the Government is talking about. There are five accepted levels of autonomous vehicles. At the simplest level, 1, the driver does all the steering, acceleration and braking, but some functions are automatic, such as cruise control or lane keeping assistance.
Many cars now are at level 2, where technology takes over in emergency situations or when the driver activates them: emergency brake assist, adaptive cruise control and active steering are such examples.
After this the level of autonomy becomes increasingly complex. Even Teslas, with their high-profile Autopilot and Full Self Driving packages, are only level 2. There are very few level 3 vehicles - where the car can drive itself in most situations, reacting and adapting to what is happening around it - but the new Mercedes-Benz EQS and S-Class offer this as an option. Crucially though, the driver must always be on hand to take over.
The next two levels are still more advanced. In 4, nobody needs to be sat in the driving seat, while 5 probably will not even have a steering wheel or driver’s seat. And it may not look like a typical car, either.
According to the Government, they will reduce human error, which it says is a contributory factor in 85% of all recorded road collisions, and help the environment too. Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said self-driving vehicles “will revolutionise the way we travel, making our future journeys greener, safer and more reliable.”
Indeed, think tank the Rand Corporation believes vehicles driven by machines rather than humans could be up to 10% more fuel efficient, reduce crashes, improve mobility for people who might otherwise not be able to drive, and reduce congestion.
So later this year, you might be able to watch a film while your Mercedes drives itself. But the parameters for when you can do this will be quite limited: only vehicles fitted with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (and also certified through Government testing) driving in a single lane on a motorway, up to 37 mph, will be allowed, while the driver must be able to take back control easily and safely when required.
Hardly a vision of robotic chauffeuring and motoring relaxation, then. The technologies which will allow this type of travel are further off. Level 4 vehicles can operate in self-driving mode, but at the moment test models are strictly limited to the geofenced areas they are designed to operate in.
For example, a fleet of four autonomous Lexus SUVs operate as shuttles in a two square mile area near the University of Michigan’s Mcity autonomous driving test centre, and their routes are carefully planned and monitored, while Google’s Waymo robot taxis are being tested in cities such as San Francisco and Phoenix.
The point at which these vehicles are set free to roam the streets by themselves is a long way off. Some experts think that it is increasingly distant because urban environments in particular have so many variables and unforeseen events that make it incredibly difficult for the vehicle to understand everything that is going on, and why. The issue is marrying up many complex technologies to create a system which operates at the same level – or above – a human’s ability.
Radar, lasers and cameras scanning the environment, maps containing details down to where manhole covers and street signs are located, massive data processing capability to interpret the information it is receiving and the ability to communicate with other vehicles will all need to work together. The challenge is vast: an autonomous car will produce 40 terabytes of data an hour, the equivalent of using an iPhone for 3,000 years.
On top of this are issues such as liability in the event of an accident and the cost of the technology. For some experts, such as Professor Hussein Dia of the Swinburne University of Technology, level 3 will be commonplace soon, but level 4 is limited and “the transition from level 4 to level 5 is orders of magnitude harder than transitions between other levels, and may take years to achieve.”
The complexity of making fully autonomous vehicles where occupants are not involved in driving at all means for manufacturers and drivers, level 3 might be enough. Stellantis Group CEO Carlos Tavares said, other than for specific vehicles such as taxis in specially designed lanes or delivery vans on predetermined routes “we don't see customer value on the driving assistance systems beyond level 3 for affordability reasons. Beyond that, we see that the cost increase skyrockets and the value doesn't increase proportionally.”
So while watching films at below 37mph in an M25 traffic jam is hardly the epitome of gleaming futuristic motoring, it might be the most we can expect in the next few years, it seems.