It sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, the idea of being transported around the country in a car that drives itself. But it may not be as far away from becoming reality as you might think; the Chancellor Philip Hammond has said he wants to see fully driverless cars on the UK’s roads by 2021.
So what’s going on? Can we really trust a motor that does it all for us?
How do driverless cars work?
Driverless, or self-driving, cars are being developed by a host of well known brands like Tesla, Google, Ford, Volvo and potentially even Apple.
Advocates say that these vehicles are essentially just an extension of the technology already on the market. The cars are fitted with various gadgets to help them navigate and react to the environment around them; these include features like GPS, navigation systems and sensors.
Some cars already offer modest levels of self-driving; for example, BMW has its ‘personal co-pilot’ system, which can do things like brake automatically and help with steering and lane control.
There are five levels of self-driving, based on just how autonomous the car is. Currently, the most advanced cars on the road are around a level two - only once we reach level five will we see vehicles which are able to function entirely without human involvement.
What do we think about driverless cars?
Research suggests that plenty of people in the UK are open minded about the prospect of driverless vehicles. A study of almost 3,000 people carried out by Cambridge University’s Engineering Department and the Department of Psychology found that only 33% completely ruled out the idea of using a fully driverless car.
Nonetheless, there was some reticence about the idea of technology entirely replacing human involvement; a massive 85% said they would want to retain some control over the choice of route, while almost three quarters (74%) wanted to keep the option to drive manually.
The ability to look at the scenery was picked out by respondents as the top benefit of self-driving cars (55%), followed by checking emails (37%), making calls (35%) and eating or drinking (also 35%).
Are they safe?
The big question around driverless cars is just how safe they are. Would you feel safe in a car that does the driving for you?
There are certainly some concerns on this front. In 2016, Joshua Brown, a test pilot for Tesla, became the first to die as a result of an accident in a self-driving car. The autopilot sensor on his ‘Model S’ was unable to pick-up a white truck and trailer crossing the highway, leading to a collision.
It’s not the only incident involving a self-driving vehicle either. In November, a self-driving bus in Las Vegas was involved in a crash just two hours after it was launched onto public roads for the first time, while General Motors’ self-driving vehicles were involved in six crashes in California in September.
That said, generally the incidents have been blamed on human error by those in charge of the other vehicles involved, rather than a mistake by the self-driving car.
It’s notable that when Deloitte carried out its own research into attitudes towards driverless cars, the four technologies ranked as the most useful by respondents were all safety related. Things like maintenance notifications and fuel efficiency were much further down the list of priorities.
Only time will tell whether the driverless cars we see on our roads are sufficiently convincing about their safety levels that motorists will feel happy to become passengers even when sat at the wheel.