The Government has made the UK the first European country to allow cars to drive themselves on public roads, after it gave Ford permission to activate its BlueCruise system.
Although they will be able to take their hands off the wheel, drivers will still need to pay attention to what the vehicle is doing. A warning system will be in place if internal cameras detect that the driver is not paying attention to the road ahead.
The Department for Transport gave Ford the go-ahead to launch BlueCruise, which is only available on the 2023 Ford Mustang Mach-E, a pure electric vehicle costing upwards of £50,000.
At a monthly cost of £17.99, BlueCruise will control acceleration, steering, braking and lane positioning, as well as maintain safe and consistent distances to vehicles ahead.
The system works by monitoring road markings, speed signs and evolving traffic conditions and will operate up to a maximum speed of 80mph.
2,300 miles of motorways have been given the go ahead for the BlueCruise to travel on, the vast majority of Britain’s network, meaning, in theory, a car could drive from Exeter all the way up to Perth without human intervention.
Drivers will have their eyes monitored by an infrared camera to make sure they’re keeping their eyes on the road. Warning messages will be displayed on the dashboard if it detects a driver is not paying attention, followed by audible alerts and then automatic slowing of the vehicle.
The same process happens if a vehicle leaves a motorway.
Lisa Brankin, Ford’s managing director for the UK and Ireland, said the system makes motorway driving “a more comfortable experience” – though safety fears remain.
Back in 2019 the RAC conducted a study, based on University of Nottingham research, which suggested that many motorists using self-driving technology would not be prepared to take over control when needed.
Government research suggests delays may rise up to 85 per cent from 2025 to 2060 if self-driving cars become commonplace, adding other hurdles the technology faces.
Fully self-driving cars remain banned on public roads in the UK apart from during government-approved trials. Legislation to approve full-autonomy could be introduced as early as 2025.
In the meantime, Britain is experiencing with the technology. A couple of self-driving Nissan electric cars were trialled on busy A roads in London last month and on 15 May, Scotland will set five autonomous buses loose over the Firth of Forth.
The buses will feature a “Level 4” assistance system, placing them further towards full autonomy than the Mustang, though human “drivers” will be on board for safety. There are six levels of autonomous driving, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
There are six levels of autonomous driving. Warning lights and automatic emergency braking are features of Level 0, while a car that is able to drive itself represents Level 5. Pedals and steering wheels need not be installed in cars Level 4 and up.
Ford’s BlueCruise technology classes as a “Level 2” assistance system, which still requires a human driver to take control should something go wrong.
Test drives were conducted by Ford engineers to assess the ability of its latest assistance systems, including BlueCruise, covering 100,000 miles on European roads.
Test routes in Britain included hazards like faded lane markings, bad weather, and roadworks. BlueCruise will be added to more Ford vehicles “in the coming years,” according to Ford.
The US and Canada saw the system introduced last year. In the last couple of years, according to Ford, more than 190,000 Ford and Lincoln vehicles have covered more than 60 million miles using the technology with no accidents being reported.
Following the activation of Ford’s system on Thursday, Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “Fully driverless cars offer the prospect of a big safety gain by removing the human errors behind so many crashes, but human error will still be with us while we have a mixed fleet of vehicles being driven as well as driving themselves.
“The technology being launched now is not fully autonomous, it is dependent on the driver being ready to intervene, and our research found that it is this ‘hand back’ to the driver that poses the biggest challenge.”
Mr Gooding also stressed the importance of drivers understanding the limits of their vehicles, particularly once they enter the second-hand market with no direct contact between manufacturers and owners.
He added: “Ironically, as we enter this new world of cars controlling themselves, drivers might actually need more training rather than less, so they fully understand a vehicle’s capabilities.”
AA president Edmund King predicted there will be “more changes in automotive technology in the next 10 years than we have seen in the last 50 years”.