Driverless cars: everything you need to know about autonomous car revolution

Autonomous cars are on the way. Here’s all the information you need to know about the future of driving without a driver

Autonomous driving

Self-driving cars are in a constant state of development, with numerous companies including Tesla, Audi and Volvo (as well as technology giants such as Apple and Google) pouring millions of pounds into making the autonomous car technology roadworthy. We’re still a few years away from truly autonomous motoring, but what will technology’s gradual development mean to the average UK motorist?

Will it see a major shift in employment and work culture? Is the driver or the manufacturer liable in the event of an accident? How will legislation and layouts be changed to make self-driving cars compatible with UK roads? Auto Express has investigated the world of driverless car technology, to bring you the answers about the cutting edge of mobility.

Where are we now?

Manufacturers are determined to put autonomous cars on UK roads. Testing in public is already underway, using specially built vehicles loaded with sensors and computers which process information about the car’s surroundings. Onboard, there’s at least one engineer to monitor the system and regain manual control if required.

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As a result, all current autonomous cars feature a steering wheel and pedal setup, like that of a conventional car. These controls will be eliminated on the fully autonomous vehicles of the future, with the vision that occupants will simply climb aboard, set their destination and let the vehicle’s electronics handle the task of driving.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen an explosion in autonomous vehicle research and development. Volvo unveiled a fully autonomous version of its XC90 SUV, designed for the ride-hailing application Uber, while BMW and Mercedes have entered a partnership to build fully autonomous, consumer-targeted production vehicles as early as 2024.

Car manufacturers are busy forming other partnerships amongst themselves, to help ease the financial burden of development. Jaguar Land Rover has teamed up with the Google-owned technology firm Waymo, with the aim of producing up to 20,000 driverless versions of the all-electric I-Pace, while Toyota and Suzuki entered an agreement in August 2019.

Tesla’s “Autopilot” system is probably the best known semi-autonomous car technology out there and remains under constant development. Currently, it can assume control of the car’s throttle, steering and braking on the motorway. It also features an automatic lane-changing function, an auto-park function and a “summon” feature, allowing the car to automatically drive to its owner in a car park.

Currently, the UK is one of the countries leading the way in autonomous vehicle research. However, many manufacturers are realising the scale of financial input required for the technology’s development, and are scaling back their operations. Ford recently realigned its estimate for the arrival of fully autonomous vehicles, while Google’s spin-off driverless vehicle firm, Waymo is unsure whether truly automated cars will be able to cope in adverse weather conditions. There are still massive technical and legislative hurdles to overcome.

The autonomous car roadmap

The word “driverless” is a loaded term in the automotive industry, regarded by some as being misleading, as it will take a decade or more for manufacturers and lawmakers to find the correct combination of technology and legislation to allow a vehicle without direct driver oversight to appear on public roads.

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To help define what a ‘driverless car’ can do there are five key stages of automation, separated into levels. Level 1 automation refers to technologies such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance and autonomous emergency braking, where the driver and electronics share control of the vehicle. In its most basic form, adaptive cruise control has been in production since the 1990s.

Vehicles fitted with Level 2 autonomous technology can assume full control of their throttle, steering and brakes in controlled circumstances, such as motorway driving or parking. The driver must monitor the system and be ready to regain control, should the electronics be unable to deal with a situation. 

Level 2 autonomy is currently the most advanced commercially available version of the technology, and features on cars such as the latest Tesla Model S, the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes S-Class.

Volvo driverless cars

Level 3 and 4-capable vehicles could appear in 2021. The systems will respectively allow “conditional” and “high” automation on dedicated stretches of motorway, where the vehicle can assume complete control of all its functions without the driver’s supervision. A Level 3 system would expect the driver to reassume control in extenuating circumstances, while a Level 4 system will be able to respond to incidents independently in all cases.

Level 5 autonomy could arrive as soon as 2025 but is hugely challenging. The system would allow a vehicle to complete a journey entirely on its own, in both motorway and city environments without input from the driver at any time. Cars will be wirelessly connected to one another and will communicate with the road infrastructure to make decisions on traffic and journey times.

It’s likely that a conventional steering wheel and pedal box will still feature on most cars. However, beyond 2025, it’s feasible we could see the first commercially available vehicle without a set of manual controls.

Autonomous car development: UK code of practice

The Department for Transport (DfT) has issued a Code of Practice, which dictates how autonomous vehicles should be developed on UK roads. First issued in 2015, the code was designed to promote the “safe trialling and use of automated technologies and services on public roads and places in the UK.”

Jaguar Land Rover autonomous testing - interior

The three main legal requirements are that the test vehicle is roadworthy, appropriately insured and accompanied by an operative who is ready to reassume control of the car if required. Oddly enough, the law says the operative needn’t be sat in the vehicle and offers the option to regain control of the test car remotely from a tracking vehicle.

Any vehicle testers must inform local communities and law enforcement of their planned development programme and the test vehicles must also abide by local driving laws, sticking to the enforced speed limits. Finally, all test mules must be fitted with a black box to allow police officers and insurers to easily analyse the events of any accident, should the worst happen.

Driverless cars: a legal analysis

Developing autonomous car technology is just one of the many hurdles between drivers and fully autonomous motoring; the Government also faces a huge legal restructure before self-driving cars become a commercial reality. Questions still remain over whether the manufacturer or the driver would be liable in the case of an accident, and whether motorists would still require driving licences if the car is driving. 

So, how could the UK’s motoring laws change?


Potentially the biggest unanswered legal question about autonomous technology is one of insurance; which party is deemed responsible in the event of an accident in which the driver was not in control of the vehicle – the driver or the manufacturer? Eleven major insurers, including Aviva and Direct Line, recently drafted a solution.

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One option is to extend compulsory motoring insurance to cover product liability, to protect motorists if the software in their autonomous vehicle malfunctions when they’re not in control. Some manufacturers, such as Volvo, have confirmed they will provide their own form of insurance for self-driving vehicles.

Specialist insurance broker Adrian Flux has announced it will launch a unique policy, to protect drivers of autonomous vehicles from hacking or software failure, in systems such as self-parking or adaptive cruise control. In any case, the Government and motoring industry wants it to be easy for drivers to make a claim, rather than allowing insurance firms to shift the blame.

Driving licences

The Government makes a clear distinction between highly automated vehicles and fully automated vehicles. In the case of the former, existing licence laws will remain as a driver must be ready to assume control of the vehicle at all times. However, the latter may require changes in legislation, as fully self-driving cars may appeal to drivers who can’t or don’t wish to drive conventional cars.

A report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee recently concluded that drivers with existing licences should take a second driving exam in an autonomous car to make sure they're capable of taking back control.

The research showed that drivers of automated vehicles took on average six times longer to respond to emergency braking situations compared with those in non-autonomous cars. The report concluded that drivers of autonomous cars risk becoming "complacent” and trusting the the technology too much. 

Roadworthiness and Maintenance

European and UK roadworthiness standards will need to be revised for driverless car production, including a new category for both parties’ annual MoT test which ensures the performance of autonomous driving systems can be tested cheaply and easily.

Vehicles which can be driven both manually and autonomously could well form a tricky legal minefield. For example, if the vehicle’s manual controls function perfectly, but its autonomous systems are malfunctioning, could it still be deemed roadworthy and pass an MoT?

The Highway Code

Autonomous vehicles can drive more accurately than humans, so the Highway Code will need to change to account for this. As such, autonomous vehicles could be programmed to overtake cyclists at a closer distance. Tailgating may also no longer be an offence – running several automated vehicles close together brings efficiency benefits, with the leading vehicle’s aerodynamic wash reducing the drag on the vehicles behind it.

Autonomous cars to improve the lives of those with limited mobility

One of the biggest benefits that autonomous cars will offer is mobility to those who currently cannot drive. A recent study by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) found that six out of ten people with limited mobility would benefit from an autonomous car.

Of those who agreed their lives would be improved, almost half said they would be able to pursue hobbies outside their home or go out to places like restaurants more often. A further 39 percent said an autonomous vehicle would provide them with better access to healthcare services.

Could autonomous cars “dumb down” driving standards?

Autonomous vehicles are designed to reduce the number of accidents caused by human drivers but, in recent months, we’ve seen that they’re far from faultless. There have been several documented cases of accidents involving autonomous vehicles and overly complacent drivers, leading to a growing concern than an over-reliance on autonomous technology will negatively impact drivers’ ability behind the wheel over time.

Mercedes F 015 interior

In 2017, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee released a report which discussed this issue. Their main concerns centred on “Level 3” autonomous technology – a system which can assume complete control of the vehicle, allowing the driver to direct their attention elsewhere in all but emergency situations.

Research cited by the Committee found that drivers of automated vehicles took, on average, six times longer to respond to emergency braking situations than drivers of conventional cars. As such, the fear is that the additional freedom brought by “Level 3” capable vehicles will make motorists less attuned to road hazards, making them ill-prepared to regain control of their vehicles when needed.

Road infrastructure

The effectiveness of autonomous technology can vary according to its surroundings. An autonomous vehicle can have all the radar, camera and laser-based guidance available to help it “see'' its environment, but the number of variables in more complex driving situations requires huge amounts of processing power to make sense of the information. The usefulness of driverless cars may ultimately depend on the quality of the road infrastructure and its ability to standardize the driving environment.

Current quality standards for the UK’s road infrastructure vary widely depending on where you drive. A brand-new dual carriageway will be perfectly laid out, with defined white lines and clear signage but, over time, the quality of the road markings and clarity of the signage will deteriorate, making it more difficult for autonomous vehicles to operate correctly.

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Narrow lanes in rural areas could pose a different challenge for autonomous vehicles. If there are no white lines defining the edge of the road, will the vehicle be able to “see” where the tarmac ends? What happens if the autonomous vehicle meets an oncoming vehicle? Will it be able to locate a passing place? 

In the UK, many country lanes are covered by 60mph national speed limit. Would an autonomous vehicle attempt to constantly attain this speed, regardless of the road’s twistiness and width? All of these scenarios will need to be trialled before full autonomy can be expected to work as effectively as a driver at the wheel.

Autonomous cars by manufacturer: an A – Z


Fully autonomous cars by: Unknown

Apple is involved in a secretive autonomous vehicle development scheme, called Project Titan. The American technology giant recently revealed that its plans of building a car had been abandoned, with the company instead looking to develop technology, which it could then sell to manufacturers of autonomous vehicles.


Fully autonomous cars by: 2024 (in geofenced areas)

BMW - autonomous driving

BMW aims to produce a Level 4 autonomous vehicle by 2024, capable of driving itself within specific geofenced locations such as motorways and dual carriageways. To achieve this goal, the German brand has formed partnerships with a range of technology companies, including Baidu, Intel Corp, Mobileye, and rival car manufacturer, Mercedes.


Fully autonomous cars by: 2024

Ford autonomous car

Ford recently toned down its expectations for what its autonomous vehicles will be capable of. The American manufacturer previously stated that its first autonomous car would operate without any conventional controls within geo-fenced areas; a statement which the firm has since revised. Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford, said the applications of its autonomous vehicle “will be narrow – what we call geo-fenced – because the problem is so complex.”


Fully autonomous cars by: Unknown

Google autonomous car

Google (and its autonomous vehicle spin-off brand, Waymo) has dabbled in self-driving vehicle technology in the United States. The technology giant has been real-world testing near Silicon Valley since 2009, using its own autonomous pods and a fleet of modified production vehicles.

However, the brand’s confidence in the technology has been shaken. Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, recently said that truly autonomous cars will never exist and that they will always require some form of “user interaction.” 


Fully autonomous cars by: 2025

A couple of years ago, Honda expressed its intentions of launching Level 3 autonomous- capable vehicles next year and Level 4 capable vehicles by 2025. However, little further information has since been released on the project, as the company has instead focussed its efforts on launching it new, retro-styled, all-electric hatchback – the Honda e.


Fully autonomous cars by: 2021

Hyundai Ioniq autonomous ride review - front

Hyundai’s research ranges from remotely maintaining and servicing your car to fully autonomous vehicles. It is currently testing fuel-cell driverless models in the UK. It has also partnered up with Aurora, a Silicon Valley start-up, to help develop a self-driving system for its cars. Aurora also has a similar agreement with VW.

Jaguar Land Rover

Fully autonomous cars by: Unknown

JLR Autonomous Pod

Recently Jaguar Land Rover’s autonomous vehicle development programme has advanced in leaps and bounds. The British giant, who has been testing autonomous vehicles since 2017, recently announced its new autonomous-vehicle friendly 3D head-up display, as well as a system which projects an autonomous vehicle’s direction of travel onto the road, informing other road users of its intentions.


Fully autonomous cars by: 2021

Kia began publicly testing Level 4 autonomous cars at the start of 2019, with the intention of releasing the technology on its production cars from 2021. While the first Level 4 cars will only be available in “smart cities,” the brand expects that, by 2025, it will be able to offer the technology to fleet customers. The Korean marque had invested $2 billion in driverless research and development at the end of 2018.


Fully autonomous cars by: Unknown

Mazda has no fully autonomous programme, but is keen to develop more advanced assistance systems. Such as its Co-Pilot Concept2 which is to be tested by 2020 and standard across all its models by 2025.


Fully autonomous vehicles by: Unknown

Mercedes F015 Luxury

Mercedes recently entered a partnership with BMW, which promises to develop Level 4 autonomous-capable vehicles (which operate within specific geofenced areas) by 2024. The German brand also unveiled its new, all-electric EQS concept at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, which is capable of Level 3 autonomy.

Mercedes is also backing autonomy for ride-sharing, with the brand having acquired a stake in Uber. Its F 015 Luxury in Motion concept shows what future autonomous cars may look like.


Fully autonomous cars by: Unknown

Mitsubishi EMIRAI 3 xDAS concept - front

Currently, autonomous vehicle development isn’t high on Mitsubishi’s priority list. Our most recent look at the Japanese firm’s plans was at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show, with the nowhere-near-production-ready Emirai 4 EV concept. However, since Mitsubishi became part of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, technology sharing could accelerate the development of its autonomous systems.

PSA (Peugeot, Citroen, DS, Vauxhall)

Fully autonomous cars by: 2021

DS is leading the way in autonomous vehicle development for PSA. The brand was granted permission by the French government to test its vehicles on public roads in 2017, in an agreement which includes licenced testing by non-expert drivers. A fleet of 20 autonomous cars were based around Velizy, Central France, and were used by members of the public.

However, Peugeot’s CEO, Jean-Philippe Imparato, recently revealed that implementing autonomous technology in one of the brand’s production vehicles would add €15,000 (roughly £13,000) to its list price. As such, the PSA Group as a whole will not sell anything beyond Level 3-capable cars to members of the public for the foreseeable future.

Renault-Nissan Alliance

Fully autonomous cars by: Unknown

Nissan Qashqai ProPILOT - dials

In 2017, Nissan announced it would sell its first fully autonomous car by 2020. This statement looks unlikely now, with the Japanese firm instead focussing its efforts on the new Nissan Juke and the latest version of its ProPILOT semi-autonomous driver aid. The system can control the car’s throttle, braking and steering while driving on single carriageways or motorway-style roads.


Fully autonomous cars by: Unknown

There’s no indication of when Subaru may provide a fully autonomous car, but by 2020 it will introduce semi-auto functions engineered for motorway driving, which will likely use a developed version of the brand’s EyeSight dual-camera assistance system.


Fully autonomous cars by: 2021

Tesla has long been at the forefront of driverless technology, and already offers an advanced, near-Level 3 autonomous driving system across its range. Research and development for Tesla’s “Autopilot” system is ongoing, with the firm’s CEO, Elon Musk, recently claiming that drivers will be able to safely fall asleep behind the wheel of one of his cars by 2021.


Fully autonomous cars by: 2020

Toyota recently ramped up its autonomous research and development programme through its $1bm (£720m) Research Institute, which introduced its next-generation autonomous mule (based on the Lexus LS 600h L) at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show. In 2020 Toyota will introduce ‘Highway Teammate’, which will autonomise highway and motorway use.

In the early 2020s the marque will then introduce ‘Urban Teammate’, which as the name suggests, brings autonomy to driving in an urban environment. On top of this, the brand invested in ride-hailing app Uber, which could see Toyota vehicles becoming more affordable for Uber drivers.


Fully autonomous cars by: 2021 (testing only)

Volvo autonomous parking

This year, Volvo unveiled a fully autonomous production-ready version of the XC90, built for the ride-hailing application Uber. The car is equipped with back-up systems for steering and brakes, so it can safely bring itself to a stop if the main driverless systems fail. Uber plans to buy tens of thousands of examples of the car between 2019 and 2021.

Volkswagen Group

Fully autonomous cars by: Unknown

Audi is spearheading the Volkswagen Group autonomous effort. The latest Audi A8 has “Level 3” autonomous tech, but while this is a useful bit of sales patter, the legislation to use such technology is not in place. Therefore owners will have to be patient and wait for an over the air or dealer update at some point in the near future.

Audi is also focusing on infrastructure projects, so cars can talk to each other, and other road tech like traffic lights. It’s actively testing an autonomous RS7 on track, teaching systems how to cope with extreme scenarios and surfaces with low levels of grip.

What do you think about the prospect of driverless cars coming to UK roads? let us know in the comments section below...

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