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Driver-assist and autonomous cars: what’s the difference?

3 minutes

As fully self-driving cars take to the road in America, we reveal how far we've travelled on the road to autonomous vehicles.

Driver-assist systems have been available for decades, so what are the differences between the self-driving cars being tested now and the technologically advanced cars that are already available to consumers?

  • Driver-assist features have been available for 50 years, helping drivers stay safe on the road
  • The main difference is the level of driver control – cruise control was first seen on a 1958 Chrysler! 
  • Autonomous (self-driving) cars are already on the road 

What is a driver-assist car?

Many of the cars currently on the road have automatic or intelligent features that assist drivers. These features are designed to improve safety and help motorists to make the right decisions. If you don't own a classic model, your car will probably have at least one driver-assist feature.

If not, you can install additional driver-assist features in most cars which, because you’re improving your car's safety, can also reduce the cost of car insurance.

The first driver-assist systems in cars included cruise control, dipping mirrors and climate control. In fact, the first cruise control system was offered half a century ago – on the 1958 Chrysler Imperial.

Since then, we've seen automatic dipping lights, rain-sensing wipers, stop-start mechanisms, adaptive suspension and automatic emergency braking systems become commonplace. Now self-parking, lane recognition and adaptive cruise control are accepted features on many new vehicles. 

This year, a new proposal was outlined by the EU that would require all new cars built in 2021 and onwards to have a number of mandatory safety systems built in. 

What is a self-driving or fully autonomous car?

A self-driving car is a vehicle that requires no input at all from the humans inside – and they’re already on roads in America.

In 2009, Waymo, part of Google, began testing and perfecting the self-driving car. This year, they have started inviting volunteers to hire fully autonomous Waymo taxis, which turn up without a human on board.

The cars were judged to be safe enough for this after they travelled over 350,000 miles in total with only 63 disengagements. A disengagement is when a self-driving car either hands over control to a safety driver, or a safety driver takes control, when the car can’t or doesn’t deal with a situation safely. 

When can I buy a self-driving car?

Self-driving cars may be on the open road in the US, but they’re not yet ready for the open market.

Manufacturers such as Volvo and Kia are testing 'self-driving vehicles', but, unlike Waymo, these usually still require the presence of a driver in case of emergencies.

GM appear to be the established motor manufacturer closest to launching a self-driving car to the consumer market, claiming that they will have developed the technology by 2019. However, like Waymo, their self-driving cars will form a taxi fleet.

It’s yet to be determined when we’ll be able to park our very own self-driving car in the driveway – or, rather, when it will park there itself.  

The big difference between assisted driving and complete self-driving

It could be argued that, like self-driving technology, driver-assist takes partial control of your car – even though it's only for a short time. For example, the Intelligent Parking Assist System requires constant input from the driver to control acceleration and braking, but turns the wheel automatically.

But it's the level of control that’s the crux. Assisted driving cars will always require a driver; self-driving cars can be completely empty and still negotiate the streets.

So, why isn’t the UK ready for self-driving cars? It’s more about legislation than technology. 

When will self-driving cars be safe on UK roads?

Testing is going on in many countries around the world, including the UK. However, before fully autonomous cars hit our country’s roads, the government is carrying out a three-year review. Announced in March, this review will determine whether the UK’s road laws are suitable for self-driving cars – not, significantly, whether the technology is there yet.

‘With driving technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, it is important that our laws and regulations keep pace so that the UK can remain one of the world leaders in this field,’ said Roads Minister Jesse Norman when the review was announced.

Although self-driving cars we can buy are still some years off, the driver-assist technology that helps motorists stay safe on the road is very much available. It's worth considering adding some of these features to your own car; they could help you avoid accidents, manage tricky manoeuvres and even reduce the cost of your insurance.