Driverless cars

How could they change our lives?


Cars that drive themselves may have been the thing of childhood dreams even 10 years ago, but today they are a reality. Across the globe, but especially in the UK, the tech world has begun designing and testing cars that do everything we do behind the steering wheel - but without a driver. The dawn of driverless cars is upon us, and it’s set to change driving as we know it

Your own car may not be driving itself just yet, but different levels of autonomy mean you might already own a kind of driverless car without realising it. Something as small as the beeping noise that guides your rear parking could mean your car is somewhat autonomous, and if your new car can park itself, it’s likely to be more of a driverless vehicle than you think.

The ultimate goal for these cars is to do away with the driver completely, creating safer, stress-free roads where everything is programmed for problem-free transport. The UK is fast becoming a leader in the development of these vehicles, with projects happening across the country, designed to bring us to the forefront of the driverless development.


of people said they would miss driving


of people said that they they would prefer if they had a human taxi driver


of people said that they wouldn’t know what to do with the extra time


said they would not feel safe driving with fully automomous cars on motorways

The technology behind a driverless car


Already a standard in all modern phones and most vehicles, some GPS devices make use of specialised aerials, while others use tools like altimeters, gyroscopes and tachometers to assist.

  • Helps to navigate the structure of the roads but doesn’t provide hazard perception or detection.
  • Works with data collected from other technologies, like LiDAR, Radar, and regular cameras, to determine the best and safest routes.

LiDAR (light detection and ranging)

  • Uses light (through lasers) to detect the position of objects, mapping your surroundings in 3D. It’s extremely similar to radar or sonar – but it works by sending light pulses that are reflected off objects.
  • Helps define and determine shapes.

Regular cameras

  • Found at both the front and back of the vehicle.
  • Used to help track vehicles in front of and behind the car.
  • Reads road signs and traffic lights to control speed and safety.

Radar cameras

  • Positioned alongside the regular cameras, radar cameras provide the strongest gauge of other vehicles. They work by emitting radio waves that bounce of other objects.
  • Helps recognise obstructions, helpful with things like cruise control and automatic parking.

Multi-domain controller

  • Converts information on a central computer into data that can be read and processed by the vehicle.
  • Allows the car to operate itself and respond to the roads.

The objective of driverless car development is to make a vehicle that can drive itself far better than a human. Designed to be able to ‘see’ the road, driverless cars will boast all sorts of futuristic features. As well as being able to drive themselves, this also means adding a new level of assistance and guidance to drivers who still want to keep their hands on the wheel, for an extra boost in road safety and easy driving.

A number of new technologies have sprung up to help cars start their journey towards self-driving. There are five main technologies behind driverless cars, from old ones like GPS to new ones like LiDAR.

“Fully autonomous cars have the potential to revolutionise the way we travel, but some important issues need to be addressed before the UK welcomes thousands of driverless vehicles onto our roads. For example, as things stand, autonomous vehicles still require some form of human back-up.”

“This means a passenger could - at any time - be asked to take the controls if the driverless car is confused by a road layout or traffic scenario. How much time will they get? And what will the consequences be if the passenger is thrusted into a dangerous and fast-paced situation, when they haven’t driven a car for several months?

That said, a lot of the fundamental tech is already in use on our roads and it’s only a matter of time before the huge investment from carmakers will result in smart and fully autonomous vehicles. From automatic emergency braking to semi-autonomous cruise control, 2018’s vehicles are already using sophisticated camera and radar systems to scan the road ahead and anticipate potential problems. Obviously, there are some big challenges when it comes to implementing that tech full time, but driverless cars will be the future of personal transport. The big question for car buyers is – when?”

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- Dan Powell, Managing Editor, Honest John

What makes a driverless car?

When it comes to driverless cars, there are five levels of automation.

Some of the features categorised under level one can probably be found in the car you currently drive, because most cars on the road now have some basic handling assistance like cruise control.

But, there’s still a long way to go until we reach level five, when we’ll have fully automated cars. Though cars are more advanced than ever, we’ve still a long way to go until we can ditch the steering wheel for good.

Would you be comfortable in a driverless car with no steering wheel?

Statistic - comfortable in a driverless car

Levels of a driverless car

Level 0

Conditional automation (eyes on)

The human driver is in total control of the vehicle. They handle everything, such as the brakes, steering, throttle, and power. Simply put, near all aspects of driving are controlled by a human operator.

Level 1

Driver assistance (hands on)

Control of the vehicle is shared between the driver and the automated system. Some aspects of driving, like speed, are controlled through adaptive cruise control and parking assistance, while the steering and other aspects are still in the hands of the driver.

Level 2

Partial automation (hands off)

The automated system has almost complete control over handling the acceleration, braking, and steering. The driver does need to be prepared to react urgently – but contact between the hands and steering wheel is usually unnecessary.

Level 3

Conditional automation (eyes off)

The car is almost entirely in control of itself – but the driver is still required to pay some attention and be prepared to intervene. The vehicle can handle immediate responses like emergency braking, and would only be authorised to take complete control during slow-moving traffic on highways with a physical barrier that separates oncoming traffic.

Level 4

High automation (mind off)

The driver isn’t required to pay attention to the road, but these can only be self-driven under particular circumstances, such as certain speed limits and road types. Specific geofenced areas could allow complete automation. The vehicle must be able to cancel a trip and park itself without the driver’s control, should these circumstances become inapplicable.

Level 5

Complete automation (steering wheel optional)

The car is completely autonomous, and no human interaction is required to fully operate the vehicle. The design of these vehicles can vary hugely: with no need to watch the road, is there any need for front windows? At this stage, it may not look like a car at all!

Already, we can see levels one and two on UK roads, and we can expect to start seeing conditional automation vehicles (level three) emerging by 2021, according to Chancellor Philip Hammond. Level four vehicles are expected follow in the next couple of years, followed a few years later we’ll have fully driverless cars – without even a steering wheel. Some, like industry leader NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang, even expect things to progress sooner, with level five cars on the road by 2022.

Car Technology

  • 1925

    Inventor Francis Houdina demonstrates the first radio-controlled car

  • 1948

    Modern cruise control is invented

  • 1968

    Electronic cruise control introduced

  • 1987

    BMW, Bosch and Mercedes invent electronic stability control

  • 1995

    Laser-based adaptive cruise control invented by Mitsubishi Daimante

  • 2002

    DARPA introduces the Grand Challenge – offering researchers a prize of 1 million USD to build an driverless car that can navigate the 142-mile Mojave Desert

  • 2003

    Toyota Harrier features pre-crash mitigation system; Toyota Prius features the first automatic parallel parking assistance system

  • 2010

    The Google Car debuts and takes a blind man for tacos

  • 2012

    Nevada begins offering licenses for driverless car

  • 2013

    The first driverless test drive on public streets occurs

  • 2014

    NHTSA drafts a rulemaking proposal for driverless driving

  • 2015

    Uber begins test-driving driverless cars in Arizona

  • 2016

    A blind man travels unaccompanied in a Google Car without pedals or a steering wheel

  • 2017

    Google Cars log over 4 million miles travelled on public roads

  • 2019

    Uber to begin receiving 24,000 level 3 cars for their fleet, to later be upgraded to level 4 with Uber’s own tech, with delivery set to finish in 2021

With a new technology, it’s hard to predict just when – or even if – the market will take hold. The challenge of creating new laws for the road looms, and even as the UK continues to develop its own fully driverless cars, the Government is hurrying to make sure they’re prepared for the changes on the road.

Although industry and government are preparing for the challenges ahead, there are other questions to be raised as well, like how the public will benefit from these cars, and whether we’re prepared for the task of simply seeing these cars on the road.

Would you let your child travel unattended in a driverless car, even if they could reduce road accidents by 90%?

Statistic - let child travel

Who’s at fault in a driverless car crash, if it’s not the other party?

Statistic - at fault

What are their benefits?

Driverless cars have plenty of benefits to offer, including improved safety and a reduced environmental impact. According to the US Department of Transport, up to 94% of road accidents are due to human error, so it’s predicted that driverless vehicles could have a huge impact on traffic accidents. And with the majority of driverless cars expected to be electric, they’re also the greener choice of car.

Driverless vehicles are also capable of driving far more efficiently, potentially cutting journey times and fuel costs. The way cities work may also see big changes; cars could drive themselves home after dropping off their owners, so the need for car parks would disappear overnight. The idea of a city without parking might be crazy, but it also might just be the future.


  • The majority of car accidents are due to human error, and self-driving cars would reduce human decision making
  • Safety will be the utmost priority in driverless vehicles and will incorporate new and existing technologies such as heat sensors


  • Anyone can ride in a driverless car – young or old, disabled or abled, blind or sighted – creating truly equal transport
  • If you can work while you’re being driven, you can (in theory) live anywhere, and hours from work, granting true freedom of living

The environment

  • Imagine if we had parks instead of parking places – a driverless car can park itself anywhere, eliminating the need for car parks
  • Driverless cars could cut congestion, and less congestion means less pollution
  • Driverless cars won’t be able to “speed”, and lower speeds can translate into savings on fuel and less environmental fuel impact

Tomorrow’s trolley problem

While we can give driverless cars the ability to ‘see’ and program them to make decisions based on these visuals, deciding on their decision-making process is much more complicated. Establishing how cars react to situations is an ethical dilemma that has no simple solution.

In situations where the car would inevitably crash, driverless cars have to make a decision about just how they would crash. If in the seconds before impact the car can swerve away and avoid hitting a pedestrian, but could injure the driver instead, should it do so?

Companies must answer these ethical questions - and other dilemmas we haven’t even discovered yet - before driverless vehicles begin to hit the roads. When it comes to these questions though, it’s worth considering just where you stand, and what you think cars should do in dangerous situations.

Insurance will change - and to your benefit

To get a better idea of what the future might hold, we spoke to AXA, who are at the forefront of British response to the challenge of insuring driverless cars, about what the future might hold for the insurance industry, and consumers themselves.

Connected and Autonomous Vehicles are nearly with us and will transform the way we live - they really are that impactful. The most important element is that they will make roads much safer, leading to less accidents, injuries, and cheaper insurance premiums.

- David Williams, Technical Director, AXA UK

What do driverless or automated vehicles mean in practice?

There’s a lot of different terminology that surrounds ‘driverless’ or ‘autonomous’ technology. I would say that driverless or autonomous is the ability of the vehicle to do some, or all, of the journey itself. It’s not just about driving however; vehicles of the future will be Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, or CAVs for short. Essentially, this term means that cars will be able to communicate with each other and the infrastructure around them, such as roads and traffic lights.

Where are we now with automation?

At the moment there is no official standard of automation. The nearest we have is the SAE Levels from 0 to 5 where 0 represents a car of, say, thirty years ago and 5 being fully automated requiring no human input in any circumstance into the driving task.

Many cars now have Level 2 capability with parking assist and autonomous emergency braking, for example. Tesla with its ‘Auto Pilot’ Feature is still only a level 2 vehicle, albeit a very impressive one! Some are coming onto the market in 2018 that are Level 3, increasing the autonomous functions and Level 4s are not too far away.

So how will the insurance model need to evolve to cope with these changes?

The legislation currently going through Parliament (The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill) has had a lot of input from insurers. The Secretary of State will have the power to designate a vehicle as automated, and this will only relate to Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles.

The government’s overriding desire was to ensure that people's confidence and safety is delivered by this framework. That's why there will be a strict liability for insurers to pay out promptly in the first instance if there is an accident involving an automated vehicle.

Insurers will then be able to try and recover this money if someone else such as the motor manufacturer has been negligent, using existing laws & precedent under products liability etc. The key thing however, is that the general public don’t need to worry about all this, their claims will be dealt with by the insurer rather than dragging them in to any lengthy legal battle.

There are other aspects of insurance for driverless vehicles which we are also looking into; including how the owner/driver of the vehicle will be responsible for installing safety-critical software updates to ensure the vehicle’s technology is up to date.

We are confident that the foundations are in place to get automated vehicles on the road, and have been working hard with a number of stakeholders to make sure all aspects of driverless insurance are thoroughly thought out.

What about the connectivity?

That's a good question, and it's the next stage we need to consider. The good thing is that legislation concerning connectivity will continue to evolve because the Government recognises it can't cover all possibilities at this point.

Greater connectivity brings with it new and emerging risks, most notably cyber-security and data protection.

Once you consider how the driving landscape will change in the future, including input from the people who are travelling, the vehicles, infrastructure providers, local authorities and third parties such as the police and insurers, you begin to see that there will need to be a great deal of cooperation.

So will driverless and connected technology help lower car insurance premiums?

As when most new technology enters the market, in the very short-term there is the possibility that the cost of repairing driverless cars may be higher, but we would expect this to fall quickly as volumes increase and we see a noticeable reduction in accidents and claims.

Ultimately, we believe that this technology will reduce the number of accidents and save lives. That means that premiums will come down and reflect that. Customers will expect nothing less and nor should they. The future of driverless vehicles means not only will motorists be safer, but also experience lower premiums and easier journeys.

David Williams, Technical Director, AXA Insurance UK
Daniel O’Byrne, Head of Public Affairs, AXA Insurance UK

Changing your daily life

Driverless cars could change your everyday life in more ways than just the daily commute. Whether we will need drivers licenses is still a big question, as is whether you’ll even need to own your own car or could simply use a one-off or subscription service.

The domination of driverless cars would impact more industries than just motoring. We’re already seeing innovations like driverless trucks change how the US delivery industry works, but cars are likely to create even wider ranging changes to society.

  • No more driving tests! If a car is completely driverless, then there’s probably no reason to gain a driver’s license or even take a test in the first place.
  • Furthermore, people might not even own their own cars. We’ll see the emergence of companies who own fleets of driverless cars that can be hired on a pay-as-you-go basis - much like how ridesharing services like Uber already operate.
  • Portable power! A driverless car is essentially a big, mobile battery. They’ll be able to act as generators - Large-scale vehicles like trucks may even be able to completely power to remote areas - meaning we could see a lot less power lines on our streets.
  • Say goodbye to parking. What if you could get dropped off by your car, and then it drives itself home until you’re ready to be picked up? There’s no need for parking spaces when your car can occupy itself - which means urban spaces will be a whole lot prettier! More space for pedestrianised areas is always a good thing!
  • What’s James Bond without his Aston Martin? It’s crucial bit of product placement that we might be seeing a whole lot less of in the near future. Think about all your favourite action movie chase scenes - now imagine them with driverless cars. Even the entertainment industry will be impacted!
  • Of course, the same applies back in the real world. That infamous OJ Simpson police chase will be a baffling sight for future generations!
  • Your car can essentially become a second living room or office. There's no need to be living in the middle of the city if you can start working on your way to work!
  • Imagine telling your car your destination, and your car providing you with the perfect movie to last the duration of your journey. We could see the emergence of a bunch of new, innovative apps and services for in-car entertainment.
  • Dinner for two with a ride included - or your hotel booking with free airport transportation - think of all the brilliant package deals that'll come with driverless cars!
  • Like any device with internet access, driverless cars can be hacked. While it might not impact your safety, it’s a new toy for hackers nonetheless.
  • Mornings and evenings will be a whole lot easier for parents if an driverless car can take the kids to school!

Percentage of people with the following concerns

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Technical issues causing you to not be able to use your car

Car Wi-Fi icon


Technology being hacked by criminals

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Data being collected about you without your knowledge

Car servicing icon


Maintenance and service costs

David Silver, Udacity


with David Silver, Head of self-driving cars at Udacity

What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to taking SDCs from the lab to the road?

The biggest economic challenge is that the first versions of these vehicles will be very expensive, because of the cutting-edge computers and sensors they require. So they'll operate in environments where they can be put to use 24/7, like urban transportation or shipping.

The biggest technological challenge might be computational speed. These vehicles will have many sensors capturing lots of data, and the onboard computers need to process that data in real-time to make instantaneous decisions.

As an educator, what’s the biggest challenge in teaching about SDCs?

Self-driving cars are at the intersection of computer science, mechanical engineering, statistics, physics, and math. Most students have a strong background in one or two of these areas, but few students have strong backgrounds in all of these areas. This is also what makes self-driving cars so much fun to study!

As an educator, what’s the most common misconception you experience when it comes to SDCs?

The most common misconception is that students think they can't work in this field because they're not smart enough. There are so many opportunities for self-driving car engineers, in so many different areas: perception, sensor fusion, localization, motion planning, control, system integration, verification and validation, data engineering. Students who are excited about the field and will have tremendous opportunities in this field.

What is the most radical shift you expect us to see in the future thanks to SDCs?

Self-driving cars will change the world in ways we can't even imagine. When we remove the constraints of time and distance, we'll find new answers to questions like where we live, where we eat, where we shop, how we design our houses and offices. It's going to be amazing.

What year do you think every car on the road will be fully-automated – if you think that will ever happen?

The question depends on "where" as much as "when". The easiest area for a self-driving car to operate is the highway, because that is a well-structured environment. The most economical areas are urban cores, because that's where the highest density of customers exist. I think it's conceivable that within 10 years we see certain areas or roads or lanes that are limited to autonomous vehicles, but a world where all roads are autonomous is too far off to predict right now.

As a consumer, what should I be most excited for when it comes to SDCs?

Safety! Every year about 1700 people in the UK die in automotive fatalities. Self-driving cars have the potential to save 1,000 or more people from death every year, and thousands more from serious injury.

As a consumer, what should I be most afraid of when it comes to SDCs?

It's not yet clear what effect self-driving cars will have on traffic. On the one hand, self-driving cars will hopefully reduce accidents and improve driving, which will reduce traffic issues. On the other hand, self-driving cars will make transportation easier and cheaper, which will increase the number of vehicles on the road at any one time. Governments will need to keep a close eye on how to manage

What is something that everyone should know about SDCs? If you could tell everyone in the world one thing about Self Driving Cars, what would it be?

Self-driving cars are going to change our world for the better. They will make us safer, happier, and wealthier. The future looks bright.

Are driverless cars the best future for us?

Truthfully, it’s tough to say exactly how driverless cars will change society in the coming years. Milestones like getting your first car or your license might lose all meaning, and ‘drink-driving’ could all but disappear overnight.

New risks like your car being hacked will appear, replacing the teenage nostalgia of escaping your parents by driving - it’s hardly an escape if they know where the car is at all times. Our relationship towards cars, and the way we make them significant, is set to change.

If you were driving and cars around you were automated, with no driver or occupants, would you feel safer than if they weren’t automated?

  • Safer
  • No difference
  • Less safe

Speaking to the experts, one thing is very apparent about driverless cars - that they’ll change the roads as we know it, but that we aren’t quite sure exactly how. While we can predict certain industries could change, like the taxi and freight industry, and we can guess that whole new services will appear overnight, it’s not possible to predict what else we’ll see.

When the mobile phone was invented, no one really knew that it would one day become a device that you could run a whole business from. When the watch was invented, no one could have predicted that it would one day be able to read your heartbeat and be used for fitness.

Though we know that driverless cars will take our hands off the wheel, maybe once and for all, and change the way we view concepts like insurance, it’s the other ways that these vehicles will change society, the ways we can’t truly predict, that could be the most valuable - and interesting - of all.


According to consumer research carried out on behalf of MoneySuperMarket, between 27th February to 2nd March 2018, with a sample comprised of 2,010 nationally representative UK adults, 18 years old +