Is the UK ready for automated vehicles?

7 minutes

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For many of us, automated vehicles are what we think of when we imagine cars of the future. But the future is here, and in Britain we could have fully automated vehicles on the road by 2025, so it’s important drivers understand the limitations of these vehicles.

  • Could automated vehicles be on our roads from as early as 2025
  • Automated vehicles rely on sensors, but are they reliable in poor weather?
  • Will automated vehicles be affordable for the average UK family?

What is an automated vehicle and how does it work?

In a nutshell, an automated vehicle is a car able to operate itself without a human manually driving it. But how do automated vehicles work? 
Well, they use pre-programmed instructions and ‘machine learning’ to control the car's operating system. It's this technology that allows the artificial intelligence within the vehicle to respond to external conditions – things a human driver would usually manage.

Many modern cars have features such as a lane departure warning, alerting drivers when they’re crossing over road markings, and some lucky car owners can enjoy assistive technology that reacts and steers away from the lane edge – fancy, right!? 

This technology is known as ADAS or Advance Driver Assistance Systems, check out our article which explains the difference between these systems and automated cars and find out more about the assistive technology found in cars today. 

What are the limitations of the ADAS technology available right now?

Although the convenience features in vehicles may sound amazing such as active lane keeping, like most things, they’re not perfect. There are plenty of limitations, and it’s these limitations that need to be aware of because you still need to be in control.

Weather vs sensors

Weather can interfere with automated features, such as on-board sensors.  The features on these advanced vehicles rely on these sensors to operate and run effectively, so, during a wet and windy British autumn (or winter… or spring… or summer), this technology may not be able to operate fully or safely.

Ranging Systems (RADARs) are one type of sensor that could be affected by weather, that’s because in heavy rain, RADARs struggle to pick up objects at a distance. The harder the rainfall, the harder the sensors will find it to detect objects, which could cause safety issues.

Cruise control and lane assist

 Many of the driver assisted vehicles we use today, are equipped with adaptive cruise control (ACC) and lane assist, and you guessed it, these systems rely on sensors. ACC goes one step further than your average cruise control by braking when necessary and adapting a car's speed when needed, while lane assist warns drivers when they’re about to drift out of a lane. 

Being able to take your foot off the accelerator and not worry about the car in front, often means that we’re no longer giving our full attention to the road ahead. This is a huge worry, because the driver (and the driver’s hazard perception) is still required even for highly assisted vehicles. It’s a common misconception that assistance features mean the car will drive itself, but these features are there to help combat the effects of stress and tiredness – not take full control.

Without a human being alert and ready to take back control, adaptive cruise control and lane assist can cause accidents, particularly on wet roads and sharp corners. This is because ACC may not slow down appropriately meaning you and your car are at risk. For example,  ACC may turn itself off if you hit a puddle which could also turn off lane assist features.

The hi-tech emergency-stop. 

All new brand-new car models (excluding modernised versions of existing models) now have to be fitted with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) in case of an accident. In fact, since 2019, it’s no longer possible to get a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating without it. If the driver fails to react to an unfolding forward collision, the car will automatically brake to avoid it.  

Low-speed automatic braking is a type of AEB system that, you guessed it, only works at lower speeds. This protects momentary lapses in judgement or concentration, aimed at protecting vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. High-speed AEB is what many people refer to as ‘automatic braking’, but this is focused more on slowing the vehicle down at high-speeds to prevent accidents or limit injury and damage, rather than stopping completely.

Although AEB can reduce your car insurance premium and could save an estimated 1,100 lives in the UK over the next ten years it isn’t a substitute for a driver paying attention to the road. Every car will have their own version of AEB, working in different ways and between different speeds, so it’s important that drivers understand how their cars’ AEB technology works, but most importantly, still pay attention. 

Did you know… some AEB systems work at speeds as low as 3mph, while you’ll have to be travelling faster for other systems to activate. 

So, what will come after ADAS?

They’ll only be allowed on roads where pedestrians and cyclists are prohibited, and traffic that moves in different directions is divided, which will include some motorways.

How will the UK road network cope with the change?

Another limitation stopping automated vehicles from hitting UK roads any time soon is Britain’s infrastructure. To put it simply, our roads just aren’t ready for them.  

In 2021, just over half (55%) of England’s roads were reported to be in good condition. So big investment is needed before our roads are ready to welcome automated vehicles - but in good news, this may mean that Britain’s potholes get fixed up!

On top of this, for automated vehicles to operate safely, digital models of road networks will need to be updated and include a lot of detail. This will involve a huge scale of data collection and mapping, which could take even longer than fixing-up Britain’s roads. Even once the improvements are made though, for automated vehicles to remain safe, the government will need to create a system that keeps track of changes to roads and infrastructure in real-time to avoid any incidents. 

The government will also need to invest in technological infrastructure for automated technology to work well, such as ensuring reliable 5G mobile reception is rolled out across the country for connectivity… Some of us are still pacing the house in search of one bar of signal in our homes! 

Did you know… The UK has recently outlined that manufacturers of automated vehicles, not the driver, will be held liable for accidents that might occur when the car is in self-driving mode.

What are the benefits of automated vehicles?

Safer roads

In the long term, introducing automated vehicles to the UK could improve the safety of our roads by reducing human error, humans get tired after driving for hours on end, computers don’t! 
Numerous research projects have found human error is a contributing factor in between 85% and 95% of current road collisions. So in theory, if automated vehicles worked perfectly, 72% of crashes on Britain's roads could be avoided, preventing 47,000 serious accidents and saving 3,900 lives over the next decade.

Less traffic

Another advantage is less traffic. At busy times, automated vehicles have the ability to help traffic flow more smoothly, with the machines making less knee jerk reactions.  For example, when a vehicle suddenly brakes hard at the last minute to avoid hitting another car, it causes the vehicles behind to behave in the same way, instead of slowing down early - creating a domino effect congestion. 

Brits spend the equivalent of one year of their adult life stuck in traffic and so for many, this would surely be a major benefit of automated vehicles.  

Are automated vehicles better for your carbon footprint?

As the fight against climate change continues, and the need for more sustainable modes of transport grows, engineers are keen to get automated vehicles on the road to help reduce pollution in towns and carbon emissions. In the UK, transport is the largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 24% of our total emissions.

Automated vehicles can make drivers' fuel go further by predicting ahead of time when the vehicle needs to slow down to avoid heavy acceleration and braking - a common petrol draining driving habit. Once introduced, automated vehicles could play an important role in the fight against climate change, with the potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions between 7 – 16%. Early automated vehicles are expected to be petrol or hybrid, however as the technology advances, many manufacturers such as Ford are already thinking about how they make automated vehicles electric.

If automated vehicles don’t sound like your cup of tea still, but you’d be interested in saving petrol, head to our fuel hacks articles for top tips and tricks. 

Will cars ever be totally automated?

It’s unlikely that cars will be completely ‘driverless’ in the near future because automated systems process information and make decisions differently to the human brain. At the moment, humans are far more capable at predicting or reacting to unexpected incidents, and therefore will need to remain alert whilst using automated vehicles. 

What else can we expect in the automotive future?

Have you heard of Hyperloop? Hyperloop is a new form of inter-city transport in which people could travel in a hovering pod inside a vacuum tube at speeds as high as 760 mph (1220 km/h), just shy of the speed of sound… Picture an extremely high-speed train.

And then there’s drone deliveries, many countries have been trialling drone delivery to reduce inner-city congestion, pollution and shipping costs. 

But even drones have their limitations - companies have struggled with making successful drone deliveries in cities, or delivering to flats... turns out drones can’t just fly through your window and deliver your parcel to the kitchen table. Shame.

Although we’re still waiting on fully-automated vehicles to be out on the road and in our day to day lives, you can embrace the technology of driver-assist features - and it could help you avoid an accident. Not ready for an automated vehicle? Make sure your car insurance is up to date for your ‘regular’ car with LV=.
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