Ford approved as Europe’s first hands-free driving car

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Ford Mustang Mach-E will offer BlueCruise as a $33-a-month option for use on 3700km of motorway.

Hands-off driving is now legal in the UK as Ford becomes the first car maker to offer semi-autonomous cruising on 2300 miles (3700km) of British motorways – the first country in Europe to allow such a move.

Offered as a £17.99 (AUD$33.20) monthly subscription extra for 2023-model-year Ford Mustang Mach-Es, the electric model that will be available to order in Australia later this year. BlueCruise allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel while the car drives itself in designated, premapped “blue zones” (which include the M25 and the M40), following approval from the Department for Transport.

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This new level two-plus autonomous tech – launched in parts of the US and Canada last year – works as an add-on to Ford’s current intelligent adaptive cruise control (IACC) and will take over when entering these zones with IACC active. Drivers will be alerted as to when they can remove their hands from the wheel.

Like IACC, BlueCruise will keep pace with other vehicles (up to the set speed and to a limit of 128km/h), slow down with traffic and adjust speed according to road signs.

The new tech builds on this, with predictive speed assistance when approaching a sharp curve and “human-like” lane positioning that “subtly” shifts away from larger vehicles – such as lorries – in adjacent lanes, as drivers “tend to do intuitively”, Ford says. Unlike its US counterpart, the UK’s BlueCruise will need a driver’s steering input to change lanes.

BlueCruise still requires the driver’s attention to be on the road, though, and is dubbed a “hands-off, eyes-on” feature – given it is not fully autonomous level three, where the car can take over entirely in certain situations. This means the driver must remain ‘in the loop’, while the car controls the driving functions.

Therefore, an infrared driver-facing camera monitors the driver’s concentration levels and will shut off the self-driving mode – and even bring the car to a gradual stop – if the driver does not respond to alerts when the car believes they’re distracted.

This is similar to Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot (available in the US and other non-European countries) but there are differences because Ford includes more safety systems, such as the eye-tracker, and a limit to the roads on which the tech may be used.

Martin Sander, general manager, Ford Model E Europe, said: “It’s not every day that you can say you’ve placed one foot in the future, but Ford BlueCruise becoming the first hands-free driving system of its kind to receive approval for use in a European country is a significant step forward for our industry.

“Modern highways can be demanding even for the most confident drivers, and intimidating for many. BlueCruise can do some of the ‘heavy lifting’, to make highway driving less of a chore, and give drivers that little extra confidence and convenience.”

More than 100,000 miles (160,000km) of tests drives in the UK and mainland Europe – which followed more than 600,000 miles (965,000km) in the US and Canada – means the tech is well suited to British roads, Ford says, with everyday issues – such as worn-out lane markings, poor weather and roadworks – still picked up by the car’s five radars and cameras.

“There’s a good reason why Ford BlueCruise is the first hands-free driving system to be cleared for use in a European country: we’ve proven beyond doubt that it can support the driver while also ensuring that they keep their eyes on the road for their safety and that of their passengers while the system is active,” said Torsten Wey, manager, advanced driver assistance systems, Ford Europe.

The Blue Oval is also looking at adding BlueCruise to older Mustang Mach-E models – equipped with the optional Tech Pack or Tech Pack+ – via an over-the-air update. The use of BlueCruise in other markets is also under consideration.

Ford’s eye on level two-plus (a new, semi-official classification) comes after the company ended its long-running campaign seeking legal approval to test level-four autonomous vehicles (AVs) on public roads in the US, citing the long-term unprofitability of the technology. Instead, its resources are aimed at “nearer-term” level two-plus and level three technologies.

Nevertheless, BlueCruise’s introduction to the UK market will open the door for many other car makers to follow suit. BMW has already said it will offer “address-to-address” level two-plus capability on its Neue Klasse EVs, due from 2025. This will, like BlueCruise, be offered via a software update for those willing to pay.

Elsewhere, Mercedes-Benz is making gains with level three technology, which doesn’t require the driver’s full attention. Germany and the US state of Nevada have given permission for the car maker to use its Drive Pilot on public roads. The system, fitted to the latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class and EQS, is capable of taking control over driving at speeds of up to 40mph (64km/h).

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