Are drivers being misled by the word ‘autonomous’?

Automated, autonomous, self-driving, driverless – all words that appear almost daily in the press when talking about cars. But what do they really mean?

By Martin Smith

Do autonomous vehicles exist? Can we buy one today? What do they do? How do they work? These are some of the many questions which surround the next stage in the evolution of the automobile. 

Since the very first motor vehicle trundled onto the public highway, one thing has remained a constant in its development – to work, it needs a driver.

That person sitting behind the wheel is responsible for controlling the momentum and direction of the vehicle. From those early days until very recently, the driver did everything with no help.

Semi-autonomous cars

In the last few years, technology has increasingly resulted in systems which can assist the driver. Most are safety-related, and operate without the driver even realising, others make the driving experience less difficult – they include:

• ABS (anti-lock braking)

• DSC (dynamic stability control)

• LDW (lane departure warning)

• ACC (adaptive cruise control)

• AEB (autonomous emergency braking)

Some manufacturers have taken these technologies combined with further sensors, cameras, and software to offer customers ‘assisted driving’ functions to further support the driver and reduce their workload. 

‘Ah,’ you might think, ‘assisted driving, that’s cars which can drive themselves. My neighbour has one.’ Sorry, no — that’s simply not true.

Despite the names or marketing of such systems (the words ‘pilot’ or ‘auto’ often appear in descriptions), these are just assisting driving vehicles — they can’t drive themselves. 

In all cases, the person behind the wheel must engage with their hands on the wheel, ready to steer or brake in case the system fails to deal with hazards or simply drops out. If there’s a crash, that person is considered in charge of the vehicle and deemed responsible, not the car.

Fully autonomous cars

So, what is an autonomous car? Using and building on the current technology in assisted driving vehicles, manufacturers are developing cars that can drive without any intervention or monitoring from the person sitting behind the wheel.

The days of instructing a car to drive you to work and park up is still a little way off, however.  

The first generation of automated cars is likely to start appearing in the next year or so. Inevitably, the first models will be high-end prestige vehicles – but, as usually happens, the technology will soon filter down to mainstream cars that we're likely to buy.

The car will drive itself for the part of the journey where it can, and at the end of that part of the journey safely hand back control to the driver, or bring the vehicle to a safe stop out of harm’s way.

It'll do the same if there’s a situation the system can't deal with, for example, adverse weather such as snow. Where automated driving is available, it'll be controlled by the programming, and drivers won't be able to use it anywhere they want.

Systems will require the driver to make a clear choice that they wish to pass control to the vehicle. 

Through Thatcham Research (a not-for-profit research centre funded by motor insurers), the motor insurance industry is keen to make sure the distinctions between the current Assisted Driving functions and “Automated Driving” are clearly understood by consumers.

Much engagement with manufacturers, government agencies, and international regulatory bodies to make sure automated vehicles can function legally and safely on our roads are on-going. Thatcham have created a guide with 12 key principles to support its development.

Automated driving technology exists, and fully automated driving will soon be with us. It'll further enhance the experience of getting from A to B. But it isn’t here yet, and it’s important to understand the difference between assisted driving and automated driving, because it’s not safe to disengage when you’re driving a car with assistive technology.

Be sure you’re always paying full attention, and your hands are on the wheel when you’re using any assistive technology.

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