Driving hands-free on the motorway is now possible in the UK.
The UK has given the green light to US carmaker Ford to deploy its “hands-free” cars on motorways.
Ford’s electric flagship Mustang Mach-E has this month become the first autonomous car model to cruise in the UK, following regulatory approval in April. Mustang Mach-E features Ford’s driving assistance technology "BlueCruise”.
BlueCruise allows drivers to let go of the steering wheel on certain motorways.
"Initially, for me, it was sort of surreal, do you trust the technology? Can it really drive the vehicle? And now that's changed to comfort, and relaxation and trust and really believing in the brand and what we're doing with the technology, seeing how far we've come, you know,” said Tariq Willis, Ford business design strategist.
“If I was thinking about five, six years ago, could this be possible? You know, I'd say definitely not. No. It's great to see and it's really pushing forward." he added.
'Hands-off, eyes on'
Mustang Mach-E is not a fully autonomous vehicle.
The system requires drivers to keep an eye on the road at all times. Several cameras and infrared sensors monitor the driver’s eyes, even if the driver is wearing sunglasses. When it detects that the driver has looked away for 10 seconds, a voice alert goes off and says "Look at the road. Resume control".
Ford says BlueCruise is a level two or two plus system, the second of six levels of autonomy according to widely used standards from the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Tesla’s Elon Musk, for example, has long predicted that fully autonomous driving (Level 4) is just around the corner.
"The driver is still very much in control, because BlueCruise is considered a driver-assist feature or advanced driver-assist feature. The vehicle is supporting the driving task, it's not completely taking over the driving task, which a level three system would be able to do," explained Douwe Cunningham, Ford Advanced Regulation, Environment and Safety Compliance Manager.
Ford says profitable, fully autonomous level 4 vehicles at scale are a long way off.
“We're optimistic about a future for L4 ADAS… (But) we won't necessarily have to create that technology ourselves,” said Cunningham.
Other car manufacturers waiting for UK’s approval for their level 2 cars are, among others, Germany’s BMW and Porsche as the country became the first to greenlight self-driving cars on motorways in Europe last year.
For now, cars with self-driving features cannot change lanes while the self-drive option is activated due to the current regulations. Ford says it is in talks with the British authorities to enable automated lane changing when the indicator is on.
It believes that improved cruise control is the next step towards Level 3 autonomous driving, which will allow the computer to take over the driving in the majority of situations.
Ford also says it hopes to be across Europe "soon".
It has already received an exemption from the driver control regulation (regulation 79) from the UNECE (ed: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) in Geneva, which enabled its deployment in the UK.
"We need to change the rules to permit hands-free driving across all EU markets and the other contracting parties or international markets that have signed up to the UN system. This work is currently ongoing with the regulators and as soon as the regulatory landscape allows, we would deploy where we can," said Cunningham.
The UK government wants to be at the forefront of rolling out autonomous driving technology and the transport ministry forecasts by 2035 around 40 per cent of new UK cars could have self-driving capabilities, creating up to 38,000 new skilled jobs.