Driverless cars: everything you need to know about self-driving vehicles

Volvo driverless cars
12 May, 2014 4:35pm Jonathan Burn

Autonomous and driverless cars are now being driven on the road - here's all you need to know about them

Driverless cars used to be reserved for science fiction, but thanks to the unstoppable march of progress, a self-driving car might end up on your own driveway in the foreseeable future.

While cars that drive themselves still in development at the moment, they are more advanced than you might think - in fact, some manufacturers have produced models that are ready to be taken onto the public road.

BMW, Nissan, Volvo and plenty of other car manufacturers already have self-driving prototypes in the field. But it's not just car manufacturers that are getting in on the action – Google has already come on leaps and bounds with its autonomous 'Google car', while Apple has also expressed a serious interest in self-driving tech.

We've experienced driverless cars first-hand, and below you can read everything you need to know about self-driving cars.

Fist self-driving Volvos on the road

Volvo says that 95 per cent of accidents are caused by human error, so the solution is simple: remove the driver from the equation for safer roads. Five prototype S60s are already on the road in Gothenburg, Sweden, fitted with autonomous tech, and Auto Express has experienced it first-hand.

With a route pre-programmed into the sat-nav, a gentle press on a steering wheel-mounted button passes control over to the car, which is able to maintain a safe distance from the car in front and stay in a designated lane while following the road ahead.

Volvo has been focusing on this tech for around a year and a basic system – allowing for semi-autonomous motorway driving – will be available on the new XC90, unveiled later this year.

But these prototype vehicles mark only the beginning. Starting in January 2017, Volvo will roll out the world’s first large-scale autonomous driving pilot project in Gothenburg, dubbed ‘Drive Me’, in which 100 more advanced self-driving Volvos will be piloting themselves around 50km of roads, safely interacting with other traffic.

Following that, Volvo hopes to have fully autonomous vehicles on sale by the end of the decade. “Our aim is to design cars that do not crash,” said Volvo Innovations Manager Jonas Ekmark. “An autonomous system that does not require driver supervision can be made safer than a vehicle that does.”

The ‘Drive Me’ programme is fully endorsed by the Swedish government, but using autonomous tech in different markets would mean meeting local laws and legislations. Volvo also claims the pilot project can improve traffic flow, cut CO2 emissions and improve fuel efficiency by up to 50 per cent.

Apart from the addition of a few sensors, the Volvo S60 prototype we sat in seemed the same as a showroom-ready model. But it was no normal S60. As we sat in the passenger seat, it cruised at 45mph, sticking to its lane and keeping a safe distance from some of Gothenburg’s more erratic drivers – all with no input at all. It can’t overtake and it can’t merge with traffic, but that will change by 2017, when these cars will be able to take complete care of themselves. This tech is impressive, but that will be a truly eerie experience.

Google self-driving car

Google has reached a major milestone in its quest to have the first driverless cars on the market by 2017. It has released footage of its computer-driven Lexus RX 450h tackling a suburban street for the first time.

The car’s logged over 700,000 miles, but only on motorways. It’s now set up to take on the roads in Google’s home state of California. The new system can detect hundreds of different objects simultaneously, such as pedestrians crossing and cyclists gesturing to turn. Google experts said that what looks like a chaotic and random street scene to the human eye is actually much more predictable to a computer.

Chris Umson, director of the Google self-driving car project, said trying to solve city driving had stumped the team two years ago, but it had made massive progress since.

He added: “A mile of city driving is more complex than a mile of freeway driving, with hundreds of different objects moving according to different rules of the road in a small area.

“A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t — and it never gets tired or distracted.”

Who else is in driverless race?

It's not just Google and Volvo working on autonomous tech. BMW, Nissan and Mercedes – with its Intelligent Drive program – are all steaming ahead with self-driving cars.

We’ve already seen that the new C, E and S-Class can steer, accelerate and brake for you on the motorway, but Mercedes already has prototypes that can check your blind spots, flick the indicator and pull out – and back in again – to overtake slower-moving traffic.

Mercedes bosses have told us in the past their self-driving models are likely to arrive in 2018. Nissan is working to a similar timescale, and we’ve ridden in a prototype Leaf that could sense parked cars in its lane and give way to oncoming traffic, before pulling around the obstacle and back into its lane.

BMW’s approach has been a little different – it’s showcased an M235i that can drift around a slalom and do hot laps of the Nürburgring. But more sensible tech is coming, with traditional semi-autonomous systems already being developed for the next-generation 7 Series.

Self-driving cars and car insurance

If self-driving cars are likely to be found on public roads in the near future, then surely they must need insurance - especially when there are other road users who are still driving themselves around. 

A recent report by insurance underwriter Lloyd's of London into this issue notes that the transfer of risk from the driver over to the programming of the machine could have inplications for insurance. Computer systems can fail, but on the other hand, there's no risk of driver error. Semi-autonomous cars like the Mercedes and Volvo models above would still have some risk of driver error, too.

Perhaps liability for a fault would lie with the manufacturer of the driverless car - but in any case, it seems that insurance premiums would drop as long as the number of accidents fell thanks to computer-controlled traffic.

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