Big news! The Department for Transport has approved the use of Ford’s BlueCruise assisted driving system on parts of the UK motorway network. Be in no doubt, this is momentous – the first time UK drivers will legally be able to take their hands off the wheel. But what does it mean for self-driving?
As we sit here today, only a select few have gained the ability to sometimes go hands-free – drivers of 2023 Ford Mustang Mach-E cars who activate a subscription. They can then use the “hands-off, eyes-on” tech on 2,300 miles of pre-mapped motorways in England, Scotland and Wales – the new ‘Blue Zones’.
The Ford video below explains how it works, with the voiceover saying: “BlueCruise combines with your intelligent adaptive cruise control and lane-centering systems, allowing you to take your hands off the steering wheel while it maintains cruising speed and keeps you in your current lane.
“An infrared camera monitors your eye gaze and head position to ensure that you’re paying due care and attention to the road ahead. If the system finds you’re not looking at the road it will notify you either with an alert message displayed in the instrument cluster or by sounding an audible chime to remind you to return your eyes to the road.
“If you do not react to the warnings the system will cancel, gently pump the brakes to get your attention and slow your vehicle down while maintaining steering control.”
Ford assisted driving video
Last year the government seemed to be planning to class cars equipped with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) as self-driving. That hasn’t happened, which is a very welcome shift.
The UK government’s website confirms: “At present, there are no self-driving vehicles listed for use in Great Britain”.
Ford itself describes BlueCruise as Level 2 driver assistance, and Transport Minister Jesse Norman made clear: “The latest advanced driver assistance systems make driving smoother and easier, but they can also help make roads safer.”
Lisa Brankin, managing director of Ford in Britain and Ireland, told the BBC‘s Today programme on Friday that, in the case of an accident, the driver will still be responsible as the technology is “not autonomous driving”.
The beeb also noted that other vehicle manufacturers offer similar systems – Tesla has Autopilot and Mercedes has Drive Pilot. Interestingly, the latter announced last year that it will accept legal responsibility for accidents caused by its system.
One of the main themes at the recent Zenzic Connected and Automated Mobility Innovators event was the need to do more to establish the UK as a global leader in CAM. This embracing of hands-free will be noted around the world.
Unfortunately, and rather predictably, much of the UK media has again confused assisted driving and self-driving.
The Guardian went with the headline “First hands-free self-driving system approved for British motorways”.
The Sun went with “HANDS OFF Huge car firm is launching the UK’s first-approved self-driving technology”.
Various outlets, including ITV, even regurgitated the line from the press release that BlueCruise can operate up to 80mph. Not on UK roads presumably as that’s 10mph above the motorway speed limit!
Let’s be clear – this lack of clarity is dangerous. Lives are at stake and road safety should be paramount.
Eyes on the road
This Ford video shows a driver happily gazing out of the window and being warned to “watch the road”.
Ford hands-free video
As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Connected and Automated Mobility stated in its red lines: “A statutory definition of self-driving must be established to distinguish this technology from assisted driving”.
The final word goes to Tom Leggett, of Thatcham, who emphasised: “For the first time ever drivers will be permitted to take their hands off the wheel. However, their eyes must remain on the road ahead. Crucially, the driver is not permitted to use their mobile, fall asleep or conduct any activity that takes attention away from the road.”