With large-scale investments, comprehensive legislation and a number of test-centres across the country already in place, the UK’s commitment to autonomous vehicles is clear. However, whilst there are small pockets of the country where knowledge about the technology is pervasive and its not uncommon to see driverless cars being tested on the streets, most people are still unsure of what it actually means for a vehicle to be autonomous.

Here, we provide a short guide to autonomous vehicles, looking at the technology that powers them and when you can expect to see them on the roads.

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What is an autonomous vehicle?

Connected vehicles, driverless cars, robotics cars, CAVs (connected and autonomous vehicles) are all terms that are commonly used to describe autonomous vehicles. But what does it all mean?

Simply put, a truly autonomous vehicle is one which can guide itself without human intervention or oversight. However, whilst fully autonomous vehicles have long existed in science-fiction, most experts agree that we are still a long way off having vehicles on our public roads that don’t require any level of human direction.

Currently, there are vehicles on our roads that can move without the need for a human to be driving them, take Tesla cars and the controversial 'autopilot' feature, for example. However, all these vehicles still require a person to be present in the vehicle whilst it is moving with the ability to override any decisions made by the car and take over the manual driving of the vehicle if necessary. The vehicles currently being trailed on public streets across the globe range in autonomy from Levels 1 to level 3.

What are the levels of autonomy?

The SMMT (The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) has outlined five levels of vehicle autonomy, ranging from driver assisted to fully autonomous.

Level 1 is the lowest and is described as ‘driver assistance’. Level 1 vehicles have a single automated aspect, but the driver is very much still in charge.

Level 2 vehicles have ‘partial automation’, where chips control two or more elements. In broad terms, this is where we are today, where vehicles are intelligent enough to weave speed and steering systems together using multiple data sources.

Level 3 vehicles are defined as having ‘conditional automation’. This is where a vehicle can manage safety-critical functions. Although all aspects of driving can be done automatically, the driver must be on hand to intervene.

Level 4 is ‘high automation’. This is where vehicles will be fully autonomous in controlled areas. When Level 4 vehicles become available, you will see them driving in geofenced urban areas, harnessing emerging technology in HD mapping, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, machine vision and advanced sensors.

Finally, Level 5 vehicles are ‘fully autonomous’, anywhere, in all environmental conditions. The key difference between this and level 4 is that the human driver is optional.

What technology is in an autonomous vehicle and how does this make them work?

The main technologies that facilitate the autonomy of driverless vehicles are radars, sensors, GPS tracking and software.

“Autonomous vehicles work the same way as with human drivers but with the devices, radars, GPS navigators and ultrasonic sensors that substitute for human senses,” says Ilya Aristov, engagement manager and head of logistics at global technology consultancy DataAr. “Video cameras capture traffic light activity whilst GPS navigation tracks the route, lidars examine the road to keep the car in lane.”

Autonomous vehicles also require a central computer that continuously collects and analyses data generated by the vehicle.

Machine learning (ML) also plays a significant role in the development of autonomous vehicles, with the cars needing to be trained on weather conditions, traffic lights, potential dangers and every thing else that human beings have to factor into their decision making when they drive. ML helps to facilitate the decisions vehicles make and the actions they take, although some decisions will be pre-determined or rules based.

“The challenges in a vehicle perceiving the world as a human does is that the road environment – particularly in dense urban settings – is very complex,” Dr. Sally Epstein, a machine learning engineer at Cambridge Consultants explains. “It’s also subject to environmental conditions, such as rain, fog, smoke and dust, which make it even harder to understand what’s happening around the vehicle.”

Connected and autonomous vehicles also require comprehensive networking infrastructure. This is proving a stumbling block in the UK, where, outside of London, only 58 percent of roads throughout the UK currently have 4G access, making any trials or wide-spread roll outs near-impossible.

When can we expect to see fully autonomous vehicles on our roads?

There’s a lot of debate around when we can expect to see autonomous vehicles rolled out wholesale on our roads. The former Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, has said he expects to see autonomous vehicles on British roads by 2021. Then, speaking at a SMMT conference earlier this year, Palmer said he didn’t expect to see fully autonomous, Level 5 vehicles on the roads within his lifetime.

Right now, a lot of companies are testing their systems and vehicles and companies like Five.AI, Oxbotica and Wayve are all currently testing self-driving cars on the streets of the UK.

Read next: Which companies are making driverless cars?

When it comes to regulation, although the UK is leading the way in terms of comprehensive legislation, there still needs to be more clarification regarding software updates.

Christian Theissen, a partner at law firm White & Case, explains: “The question that arises here is whether major software updates will require a new approval from the regulator. Or, will the regulator set a threshold of some kind and a new approval will be required only when this threshold is exceeded?”

From a technological perspective, Jaguar Land Rover has estimated that fully autonomous vehicles will require one billion lines of code in order to be fully operational; a big ask considering there are already an estimated 600,000 tech vacancies in the UK, a figure that is predicted to reach 1 million by 2020.

For the time being, it seems like fully driverless vehicles, where there is no steering wheel or controls for the driver, are still very much the stuff of science fiction.