We had the chance to try the electric Ford Mustang Mach-E in Great Britain, equipped with a major innovation: autonomous driving on the motorway, without hands. What exceed Tesla and offer technology that even Mercedes does not offer on its S-Class and EQS.
While Tesla has been promising the imminent launch of fully autonomous driving every year for several years, other manufacturers are proceeding by successive iterations. This is notably the case of Ford, which recently launched BlueCruise in Great Britain.
Level 2+ semi-autonomous driving: what is it?
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BlueCruise is what is called a level 2+ autonomous driving system. This is not an official level of the SAE scale, but it is an unofficial level of autonomy that is agreed upon between manufacturers and even the said SAE. This “2 plus” level characterizes semi-autonomous driving managing the pace and centering in the laneas there have been for years (like Tesla’s Autopilot, for example), but now works without hands. Which changes everything!
Unlike level 3, with level 2+ it is always considered that the driver “drives” and remains fully responsible. He must therefore not only be ready to take control when the car asks, he must remain alert to the road as if he were driving. And above all, he remains responsible in the event of an accident, unlike level 3.
Mercedes already markets its Drive Pilot in Germany, but this level 3 autonomous driving system only works up to 60 km/h on the motorway, that is to say when traffic is dense or in the event of a traffic jam.
Ford BlueCruise is meanwhile the first level 2+ autonomous driving system marketed in Europe, and as such the first allowing “hands-free driving” up to speed limits. Available according to Ford on 193,000 Ford and Lincoln vehicles in the United States and Canada for 2 years, it has been available in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) since April 2023. Ford therefore invited us to try it briefly in the suburbs of London.
We got behind the wheel of a 2023 Mustang Mach-E from Ford’s London office in Stratford and drove for just under an hour on the M11 motorway. Despite driving on the left and driving on the right, we quickly find our bearings in the car with which we made our journey of 4000 km the previous summer.
By winning the highway, we engage and initially find the convincing and reassuring level 2 autonomous driving that we already know. That is, the car speeds up and slows down, and turns on its own to follow the road and stay in the middle of its lane. At this point, the instrument cluster displays blue parentheses around the representation of our car, with a pictogram symbolizing hands on a steering wheel.
Then, we take the access ramp to the M11, and after a few hundred meters, a blue “Hands-free” steering wheel appears on the instrument cluster and the car automatically switches to Blue Cruise mode. You can then let go of the steering wheel and “drive” without feet or hands.
You hold it wrong
What allowed Ford to obtain in Great Britain an “exemption” from the famous Regulation 79 of the Economic Commission for Europe of the United Nations (UNECE Regulation 79), it is a device, installed between the steering wheel and the instrument cluster, which “simply” monitors that the driver is watching the road. This allows you to remove your hands from the steering wheel, legally.
At first, you instinctively hold the steering wheel and force yourself to put your hands on the armrests or on your legs. However, nothing prevents you from holding the steering wheel. Besides, BlueCruise does not fundamentally change the operation and behavior of the car’s autonomous drivingwhich is based on the same battery of cameras and radars in the four corners of the car.
We also find the same limits, in particular the car does not automatically exceed, as it knows how to do in the USA, but the European regulations have just evolved on this subject. It is therefore a safe bet that the Ford Mustang in BlueCruise mode will be able to overtake other vehicles in Europe on its own in the future. On the other hand the system removes the main shortcoming of level 2 autonomous driving systems.
As we lament in nearly all of our long-distance testing, most existing autopilots often ask drivers to hold the steering wheel they’re already holding. Indeed, they are efficient enough for you to put your hands passively on the steering wheel, without having to modify the trajectory of the car. Some systems detect hands by the opposition they exert on the steering, the best detect hand contact, but require it at certain specific points on the steering wheel.
Level 2+ reinforces security along the way, since you can’t fool it with a counterweight on the steering wheel (to make it seem like you’re holding it) and since you can’t be distracted by the landscape, the screen of the car’s multimedia system or your phone while holding the steering wheel. BlueCruise calls us to order, on the handset and then if necessary with an audible signal, after about ten seconds spent looking for our consumption on the infotainment or photographing the instrument cluster.
Ford’s eye tracking device relies on infrared sensors presumably similar to Apple’s Face ID. It works with sunglasses and you can’t fool it with a simple photo. Ford thus claims 0 accident after 64 million miles (102 million kilometres) driven hands-free in the past two years in North America.
Price and availability
In short, BlueCruise is the icing on the cake of Ford’s level 2 autonomous driving system which was already among the best on the market. We can’t wait for it to be available in France and in other countries in Europe where we drive on the “good side”.
Unlike the Level 2 system, which can be activated anywhere as long as the lane is clearly demarcated, BlueCruise is and will only be available in predefined “blue zones”, highways or expressways delimited by separators fixed. That is 2,300 miles (3,700 km) in Great Britain and 22,000 km foreseeable in France.
In Great Britain, BlueCruise is only available on Mustang Mach-E from 2023, but it will soon be available on all Mach-E equipped with the gaze sensor, either models equipped with Tech Pack or Tech Pack+.
Unfortunately, BlueCruise is not free. After 90 days of trial, it is billed at 17.99 pounds sterling per month (about 21 euros). The subscription is non-binding, you can only subscribe for the vacation months.
Regarding France, according to our information, several manufacturers should meet the authorities this fall regarding level 2+ autonomous driving. We can therefore hope for an authorization at the beginning of 2024, unless the State decides to wait until the French manufacturers can offer it. None has yet communicated on this subject to our knowledge.
Mercedes is in ambush on level 3: it has just launched automatic lane change in Europe, which is one of the conditions for upgrading its level 3 Drive Pilot autonomous driving system from 60 to 130 km/h. For its part, BMW will offer semi-automatic lane change on the BMW i5, thanks to the look.
For the first time since the launch of Autopilot a decade ago on the Tesla Model S, innovation is once again in full swing on the autonomous driving front!
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