Ford unleashes the UK’s first legal hands-free drive car – but who will buy it? | Automotive industry

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Taking your hands off the steering wheel while driving on a busy M11 motorway in Essex at 70mph feels like a counterintuitive leap of faith.

When a display flashes blue on the dashboard the moment has come: let go, and the car continues in its lane with no input from feet or hands.

The car is a Ford Mustang Mach-E, which has this month become the first to offer hands-free driving capabilities on roads in the UK – a first for the whole of Europe, as well. It is a milestone in the shift to autonomous driving, even if, for now, it is limited to motorways.

Ford is now hoping that it can persuade customers to pay for the technology. Since it was approved by regulators in April, 60% of the owners of the 2023 version of the battery-electric Mach-E have used it, Ford said. The next few weeks will be the first test of whether the feature, named BlueCruise, offers enough to persuade UK drivers to part with the £18 a month it will cost to enable it.

a man in Ford’s electric Mustang Mach-E drives hands-free
Ford’s electric Mustang Mach-E boasts the BlueCruise self-driving technology. US drivers have already notched up 100m miles, so far incident-free, says Ford. Photograph: Ford/PA

“We’re the first and only [manufacturer] doing this in Europe,” said Jack Baker, a manager charged with rolling out the service. Ford is hoping at first to pick up “seasonal use” customers such as people making “one journey in the summer”, he said at the company’s Stratford office.

Under UK regulations hands-free mode is only available on motorways, with physical barriers separating cars from oncoming traffic. The regulations for now also ban automated lane changing (which incidentally gives drivers a new incentive to hog the middle lane to avoid being stuck behind lorries).

An infrared camera on the dashboard monitors the driver’s eyes – even if they are wearing sunglasses, according to Ford. This meets UK regulations which as yet only allow “hands-off, eyes on” technology on public roads.

Testing that driver monitoring requires a second leap of faith. If letting go of the steering wheel feels bold, looking away completely for the first time adds another level of peril.

After five long seconds looking at the green fields and scattered development of London’s exurbs, a chime tells the driver to look back at the road. A few seconds more and the chime becomes more insistent. After about 15 seconds the car starts squeezing the brakes. It is hardly a dramatic jolt, but enough to prompt a drowsy driver (or a nervous reporter) to take back control. (Eventually the car will slow down to 10km/h if the driver does not respond, and after five minutes of inattention it will alert emergency services.)

Whatever the limitations for now, a driver could go the vast majority of the way from Folkestone on the south coast to Dundee in Scotland without touching the wheel or the pedals, making for a much less tiring journey.

However, Philippe Houchois, an automotive equity analyst at investment bank Jefferies, said it was still unclear how much car owners would pay for hands-off systems that may not add a huge amount compared with adaptive cruise control that has been available (often for no extra fee) for over a decade.

“From a user perspective I don’t really see a big difference,” said Houchois. While some people would definitely see the value, he said the real financial value for carmakers would come when drivers have “the true option of doing something else or saving time”.

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Cars can be graded on six levels of autonomy, according to widely used standards set by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Zero stands for no autonomy, up to level 5 for full, no-intervention automation on any road. Ford’s system is the first to gain UK approval at level 2.

Other big carmakers will follow with level 2 tech once they have regulatory approvals. Germany’s BMW has said its hands-free option will be available in the UK from next year on some models. Porsche is expected to offer similar abilities on its Macan SUV next year as well.

Electric Mustang owners have already driven more than 100m miles with BlueCruise in control on US and Canadian roads, where there are more than 200,000 active users. Ford also reports that in that time there have been zero “incidents reported”.

Regulators around the world are taking different approaches to driverless technology – with varying degrees of openness to innovation.

Several US cities are already allowing robotaxis. General Motors subsidiary Cruise is already operating robotaxis in San Francisco, Phoenix and Austin – albeit in limited areas, at limited times, and with some issues with cars blocking roads. China is also allowing entirely driverless cars to be road tested in Shenzhen, a special economic zone and tech hub bordering Hong Kong that is hoping to be a leader in commercialised autonomous cars.

The rush to roll out autonomy is not without its controversies. Electric car pioneer Tesla describes its autonomous driving software as “full self-driving”, but it has faced scrutiny over how it and its boss, Elon Musk, promote its technology – which still requires a driver to be ready to take over at any time. US safety regulators are investigating a number of Tesla crashes where the software was in operation. Tesla was approached for comment.

Some analysts believe there is a long way to go before autonomy becomes a big source of profits for carmakers. “I am still a bit cynical,” said Houchois. “The point where we may trust the machines is a bit more distant.”

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