Self-driving cars always seem to be coming “next year.” From Tesla to Google to General Motors, carmakers tell us they’re working on the latest intelligent algorithm that can distinguish a flock of geese from a parked car.
So far, several knuckleheads have crashed their Teslas pushing the technology too far, too fast. But every fender bender and robotic freak out is a learning opportunity that brings the dream of legally not paying attention while you drive a car just one step closer.
First, let’s take a look at the levels of self-driving cars and where the technology is now, and where it’s going. The Society of Automotive Engineers has established five levels:
Level 0: This is basically any pre-electronic era car or a base model of a current vehicle. A human must do everything, from popping in the cigarette lighter to braking for puppies.
Level 1: Most cars on the market qualify for this level with at least one advanced driver assist feature. That’s likely to be adaptive cruise control or lane-keeping technology. The human driver is still in charge but they get a little help.
Level 2: At this level, at least two advanced driver assistance systems are required. They could be braking, steering or acceleration. The technology must work in a coordinated fashion, such as adaptive cruise control with automatic emergency braking. Still, the driver is the brain of the vehicle. The Tesla Autopilot and GM’s Super Cruise system are good examples of Level 2.
Level 3: This is where things get interesting. At this level, a vehicle can take full control under certain conditions. Even if the car is managing highway on-ramps and exits, the driver must stay aware and be in complete control. These systems are mostly in test mode right now, although Audi plans to offer the AI Traffic Jam Pilot System on the A8 Sedan in the near future.
Level 4: Vehicles at this level are capable of completing an entire journey without driver interaction. These cars may be limited to certain areas and certain speeds and will retain driver interfaces like a steering wheel and pedals.
Level 5: Welcome to the future, where there’s no way for passengers to control the car. You can lean back and play Fortnite on the way to your destination. Vehicles at this level could change the way we think about transportation – why own a car when you can call one to take you where you want to go?
Your first experience with a self-driving vehicle may be at an airport or in Las Vegas with self-driving shuttles. It’s much easier for them to function in a fixed environment. Inputting a destination into your car’s nav system and expecting it to navigate neighborhood and city traffic in lousy weather flawlessly is a whole different deal.
Of course, human drivers are far from perfect. In 94% of fatal highway accidents, human error is at fault, according to the U.S. National Center for Statistics and Analysis. If most cars on the road used today’s available safety features, fatal crash rates could fall 86%, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
There’s still a way to go before any fully self-driving technology is ready for the masses. Some fundamental barriers, such as birds in the road, snow, tree shadows and bridges can bumfuzzle the technology. Some self-driving cars tend to follow the vehicle ahead of them off the exit ramp rather than following the road ahead.
Companies like Aptiv, Waymo and GM and are still testing self-driving cars with safety drivers onboard. Honda has invested in Cruise, GM’s self-driving car subsidiary, which plans to launch a self-driving taxi service in 2019.
Ford is tackling one of the problems with quiet, self-driving cars. They would communicate what the car is going to do next, like making a left turn or wait for them to cross the street. Ford experimented with an LED light bar spanning the windshield that signals whether the car is going to yield, start moving from a stop, or continue on its current course. Research in the real world showed that light bar didn’t entice any illegal behavior from pedestrians, and most people figured out quickly what the signals meant.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking at changing the rules to allow vehicles that don’t have the equipment for human operators to take to the roads. This move would remove hurdles for GM and Waymo’s plans for self-driving taxis.
In addition to some of the technical issues, ethical and legal questions may be the biggest hurdles to taking human drivers out of the equation. Will self-driving cars be programmed with a solution to the trolley problem? That is if you were the driver of a trolley on a train track approaching a fork in the track, would you choose the fork that would result in your death but avoid crashing into a bus full of children? Or would you plow into the bus but save yourself?
Admittedly, this problem doesn’t arise often. But it’s a real issue. Would you get in a self-driving taxi knowing it could decide to sacrifice you for what it thinks is the greater good?
Forbes – https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidsilver/2018/10/05/what-hurdles-do-self-driving-cars-face-as-waymo-gets-ready-for-prime-time/#451de4684d0f
Quartz – https://qz.com/1397504/all-the-things-that-still-baffle-self-driving-cars-starting-with-seagulls
Tech Spot – https://www.techspot.com/news/76809-self-driving-cars-without-steering-wheels-set-arrive.html
Wired – https://www.wired.com/story/honda-gm-cruise-self-driving-cars/
The Audi Aicon concept car, an electric vehicle without driver controls. Photo via Audi.
The new Audi A8 features the traffic jam pilot that takes over driving at slow speeds. Photo via Audi.
Waymo has millions of miles of experience in its self-driving cars and vans. Photo via Waymo.
Waymo is testing a self-driving electric Jaguar iPace SUV. Photo via Waymo.
The Chevy Cruise is awaiting government permission to be the first production vehicle built without driver controls. Photo via Chevrolet.
The array of cameras and sensors on the roof of the Chevy Cruise that allows it to drive entirely by itself. Photo via Chevrolet.