The Inevitability and Reality of Self-Driving Cars: A Comprehensive Analysis
Self-driving cars have been a topic of great interest and speculation in recent years. As automakers strive to achieve full autonomy, several new cars have been introduced with self-driving features that bring us closer to the goal of driver-less vehicles. With limited hands-free driving systems already on the market, such as GM’s Super Cruise, Tesla’s Autopilot, and Ford’s BlueCruise, and numerous others in different stages of development, the reality of self-driving cars is becoming increasingly tangible. These advancements in technology have led to the classification of self-driving features into different levels, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in 2014 and updated in 2021.
Understanding the Levels of Self-Driving Cars
While the majority of new car buyers may not necessarily need to know the specifics of each level, it can be helpful to have a basic understanding of the principles involved in order to determine which self-driving system may be suitable for their needs and which systems may be restricted by the law in their area. In this article, we will explore the SAE-accepted levels of driving automation, explain what they mean for new cars, and provide examples of systems that fall into each category.
Level 0: No Self-Driving Features
Level 0 cars do not possess any self-driving features, but they can have driver support systems. Many cars on the road today fall into this category, even if they are equipped with safety systems such as automatic emergency braking or blind-spot monitors. Automatic emergency braking is a crucial safety feature that detects the possibility of an imminent impact and applies the brakes to mitigate or avoid a collision. This life-saving feature has been voluntarily adopted by the majority of automakers, with the objective of equipping 95% of the cars they produce with this technology by September 2022. The introduction of automatic emergency braking has significantly contributed to reducing the number of rear-end crashes, which are among the most common types of accidents on the road. The SAE updated the definition of Level 0 in 2021 to reflect the technological advancements in new vehicles.
Level 1: Some Driver Assistance
Level 1 cars have basic driver assistance systems that can control either the speed or steering, but not both simultaneously. An example of a Level 1 feature is adaptive cruise control, which allows the car to adjust its speed to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. Another example is active lane control, which helps to keep the car centered within its lane.
Level 2: Enhanced Driver Assistance
Level 2 cars provide even more driver assistance capabilities. Many luxury automakers, such as Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW, now offer Level 2 features that can control both steering and speed simultaneously for short periods of time, typically under one minute or even just a few seconds. However, it is important to note that these systems require the driver to constantly monitor the environment around the car. GM’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot are among the most prominent Level 2 systems in the market. Ford’s BlueCruise is another notable example, allowing for extended periods of hands-free driving on mapped highways with driver supervision. These systems also feature driver monitor cameras to ensure that the driver remains engaged in the driving process.
Level 3: Conditional Autonomy
Level 3 cars, although often mistakenly claimed to be fully autonomous, only offer conditional autonomy. While Level 2 vehicles require constant driver monitoring, Level 3 cars have the capability to control the vehicle in all situations. However, if the self-driving systems fail to operate correctly or encounter a situation they cannot handle, they will request the driver to intervene. This presents a safety challenge, as drivers relying too heavily on the system may not be prepared to take over at a moment’s notice. Tesla’s Autopilot, for example, has been subject to controversy due to drivers misusing the system and even attempting to operate the vehicle from the back seat.
Level 4: Near Autonomy
Level 4 cars represent a significant advancement in self-driving technology. They do not require any driver interaction and have the ability to bring the vehicle to a stop if the systems fail. This is a crucial distinction from Level 3, where driver intervention is necessary in such situations. Automakers such as GM, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla have already implemented Level 4 systems that can slow down and stop the vehicle, activating hazard lights to alert other road users. Level 4 cars eliminate the need for driver-operated controls like the steering wheel, gas pedal, and brake pedal, as they are redundant in fully autonomous vehicles. However, it is worth noting that Volvo has expressed its intention to produce Level 4 vehicles that include both driver controls and self-driving capabilities, making them an exception in the industry. Many companies are also exploring the development of Level 4 prototypes and concepts, particularly for use in driverless shuttles.
Level 5: Complete Autonomy
Level 5 represents the ultimate goal of self-driving technology – complete autonomy. In Level 5 vehicles, human intervention is not required at any point. These cars are designed to operate entirely on their own, even in complex and challenging scenarios such as navigating roads without clear lines, adverse weather conditions, or changing environments. While Level 4 to Level 5 may seem like a small step, it is, in fact, a monumental leap. Achieving Level 5 autonomy requires advanced sensors, extensive computational power, and overcoming numerous technical challenges. As of now, no automaker or startup has provided a concrete timeline for the release of Level 5 cars. Experts estimate that it could take at least a decade or longer to develop and deploy such technology, assuming they are deemed legal and safe for public use.
Self-driving cars are rapidly becoming a reality, with automakers pushing the boundaries of autonomy and introducing new features at various levels of driving automation. While fully autonomous Level 5 vehicles remain a distant goal, levels 1 to 4 are already transforming the automotive industry. These advancements promise to enhance driver safety, increase convenience, and revolutionize transportation as we know it. However, it is vital to recognize the limitations and safety concerns associated with these technologies, as well as the legal and regulatory frameworks that need to be established to ensure their responsible integration into our roadways. With ongoing advancements in self-driving technology and continued collaboration between automakers, policymakers, and industry stakeholders, the day when self-driving cars become a common sight on our roads may not be too far away.