Autonomous (self-driving) vehicles have been with us for a long time. As early as the 1920s experiments were being conducted in America and then developed over the years with the first fully autonomous vehicle appearing in the 1980s.

Driverless guided mass transportation systems have been in place for several years. The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is an example of this, however, it is not fully autonomous as it is guided by track to specific destinations.

Now a century on from the first experiments we have reached a point where fully autonomous vehicles have been produced. Waymo (part of Google) took its driverless pod car onto the road for the first time in 2015 and although self-driving it still needs a ‘human’ to take control when required.

Autonomous vehicles are different from automated vehicles. Autonomous vehicles would be their ‘own person’ making their own decisions, this type of vehicle has been referred to in the popular press as ‘zombie vehicles’. Whereas automated cars would follow a programme and drive according to the information input; however, we are a long way off from having fully automated driverless vehicles on our roads.

No self-driving cars are on the roads today as the law does not permit such vehicles and the technology to guide and control this type of vehicle is not fully in place yet.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a classification system from Level 0 to Level 5. Levels 0 to 2 – the driver is driving! Vehicles above Level 2 involving the technology taking complete control and at present are not approved.

Level 0 – relates to a vehicle with no automation and is fully controlled by the driver, some support systems may be in place at this level such as lane-keeping assistance and stability control. However, these systems will not drive the vehicle.

Level 1 – would have a minimum of one driver assistance support system installed for example adaptive cruise control.

Level 2 – vehicle would perform steering, acceleration and braking tasks (Highway Driving Assist) with the driver engaged (hands on the wheel) and ready to resume control of the vehicle at any point. Specific roads in America and Canada where Ford’s ‘Blue Cruise’ is in place allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel.

Level 3 – not at present legal. Uses unsupervised technology and allows drivers to engage in other non-driving tasks.

Level 4 – no human interaction required; vehicle programmed with destinations within certain boundaries. Certain conditions might stop this vehicle from operating and would be used specifically on public transport systems. This type of vehicle might not have any steering wheel and you can have sleep!!!

Level 5 – only human interaction will be to set a destination.

As time goes on vehicles and infrastructure will develop accordingly and safety must be a top priority.

Research has shown that inappropriate driving behaviour (speeding, close following, poor overtaking etc.) accounts as the causation for more than 90% of all collisions. The benefits of technological developments already in place (Levels 0-2) do already play a part in reducing death and injury on roads across the world.

If autonomous/automated vehicles can continue to positively influence these driving behaviours, then the development has to be welcomed by all of the road safety community.

Road Safety GB welcome the development of these vehicles of the future; however safety must not be compromised to ensure in the years ahead they have the potential to make our roads a safer place for all road users.

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