Can you buy a self driving car in the UK? The reality of autonomous car sales in 2022

Safety experts raise fears that perception of driver assistance and autonomous cars “racing ahead of reality” leaving drivers confused

Half of UK motorists wrongly believe it is already possible to buy a fully self-driving car, according to a new study.

The Trust in Automation study by risk intelligence specialists Thatcham Research found that a frightening 52% of UK drivers thought fully autonomous vehicles were already on sale. In America, that rose to 72% of drivers, despite car makers in both countries only offering driver assistance systems which require full-time supervision by the driver.

Young drivers were more likely to wrongly believe they could buy an automated car already, with 77% of 17–24-year-olds saying they thought it was possible, compared with 41% of those aged 55 and over.

The findings have led to calls for better education and a more careful use of language around autonomous technology. Thatcham Research’s chief strategic research officer Matthew Avery said that perception was racing ahead of reality and risked causing confusion when such systems finally do start to reach the market.

He said: “Realising the government’s stated safety ambition for automated vehicles is dependent on driver education. This can’t just be lip service. With more than half of the UK public believing that autonomous driving is here today, the perception is racing ahead of the reality.

“The industry must be cautious with the language employed to sell automation and drivers must be made aware of the limitations of systems. This is vital not only during the early stages of adoption but also as we move towards fuller levels of automation.”

Part of the confusion has arisen from car makers using a variety of often misleading different names for their driver assistance systems, such as Autopilot and Full-Self Driving, as well as statements from the government around the introduction of self-driving cars on UK roads.

The Department for Transport first said “self-driving” cars would appear on UK roads in 2021 before shifting that date to 2023. It has also revealed plans for fully autonomous vehicles to be in use by 2025. Currently, the government’s own list of cars determined to be “self-driving” is blank and its definition for the first self-driving cars doesn’t apply to fully autonomous vehicles but cars equipped with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS).

(Graphic: Thatcham Research)

In cars with certified ALKS systems, drivers will be able to turn over responsibility for the car’s operation to the system. However, at first these systems will be restricted to sections of motorway and the driver will still have to be prepared to resume control if the system encounters an issue it can’t handle. In Europe the only ALKS-equipped car on sale is the Mercedes S-Class, whose system is only permitted to be used on certain predetermined sections of German autobahn.

Steve Gooding, director, RAC Foundation, said better driver education was vital in coming years. He commented: “Given all the hype surrounding automated car technology, particularly coverage of autonomous cars and taxis operating in the US, it isn’t surprising that some people think self-driving cars are already available on the UK market. The most important point that this research highlights is the need to ensure drivers understand the limits of automated options when they do first appear on UK roads, particularly where the system requires the driver to stand ready to re-take control.”

In November 2021 the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ AV-DRiVE Group launched guiding principles on the marketing of automated vehicles to make sure it is “clear and comprehensible”, which Avery said would be key in the safe development of the technology.

He said: “It’s crucial that the SMMT’s existing guidelines are adhered to, along with the subsequent principles currently in development. This is an ongoing communication through the stages of automation at various touchpoints – encompassing carmaker marketing, how the systems interact with drivers, and how system capability is described in dealerships.”

The study also found that while most motorists were open to the idea of cars with autonomous features, many were cautious about their adoption. Only 4% said they would buy a car with autonomous driving features as soon as they become available, while 44% said they would wait for the technology to mature before purchasing a self-driving car. A resolute 24% said they would completely avoid buying a car with self-driving capability.

Jonathan Dye, chair of the Automated Driving Insurer Group (ADIG) said it was important that drivers had a clear understanding of their vehicle’s capabilities. He said: “With some models likely to have the self-driving technology as ‘optional’, or as an ‘over the air update’, meaning it would be possible to change a vehicle’s capabilities overnight, it’s imperative the driver has a full and clear understanding of the vehicle’s limitations.”