The recent advancements in the automotive industry have created cars that almost seem unreal. We’ve long seen futuristic cars appear in movies like the Volkswagen Beetle from Herbie: Fully Loaded, with the plot based around the vehicle’s autonomous capability to drive itself. This has inspired car manufacturers to make futuristic cars a thing of the present.
An autonomous car is a self-driving or driverless car; that is able to detect its surroundings using different technologies like radar, laser light, GPS, odometry, LIDAR and computer vision, analyzing this input with advanced control systems to be able to navigate relatively independently. Not all autonomous cars are Herbie though; there are different levels of autonomy.
There are two main systems of classification: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which divides autonomy into five levels, while the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) divides them into six. Although both are similar, in October 2016, the NHTSA abandoned their system and officially adopted the levels of autonomy outlined in the SAE International’s J3016 document.
Here’s what it looks like:
Level 0: No Automation
This is your plain and simple driver-operated mode; the driver controls everything from acceleration to braking, turning, parking, etc…
Level 1: Drive assistance “Hands on”
The driver shares control with the car’s automated system, gaining some assistance with certain functions. An example of this would be Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), parking assist or lane keeping assist, where the car controls one function only; either steering or speed.
Level 2: Partial automation “Hands off”
The driver may take their hands off the wheel and foot off the pedals as the car takes control over one or more driver assistance systems of both steering and acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment. This applies under certain circumstances however; and the shorthand “Hands off” isn’t to be taken literally as the driver is expected to regain control at any time. This is where Tesla Autopilot has been since 2014 and where Tesla Model S is at this level.
Level 3: Conditional automation: “Eyes off”
All major functions are automated, still under certain conditions like driving on a highway or in slow-moving traffic. The driver is free to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road but must be on standby, ready to take over control when the system asks for it.
Level 4: High automation: “Mind off”
This requires even less attention as the automated system takes over all functions. While this applies in certain areas only, the system can still abort and park the car safely if the driver doesn’t regain control after the car requests assistance. Google/Waymo reached this in 2015, when they successfully completed the first driverless test drive on public roads with a blind person in the backseat and a vacant driver’s seat.
Level 5: Full automation: “Steering wheel optional”
Since this level is essentially driverless, the passenger sets their destination, like a robot taxi. There are no restrictions on where the car can drive. The steering wheel, pedals and the front seats become superfluous.
Despite controversy regarding autonomous cars, leading car manufacturers have spent years developing them. Tesla has an early lead in making autonomous cars; their website advertises Full Self-Driving Hardware on all their cars. Tesla’s Autopilot has been around since 2015 with level 2 automation, but in spite of this head start, other manufacturers like GM, Waymo, Volkswagen, Ford and Daimler have outrun Tesla in the autonomous car race.
The initial autopilot version was developed in partnership with Mobileye, but this deal was terminated after a fatal Autopilot car crash in May, 2016 that gained wide media attention. The crash’s blame was shared between the driver, the car’s Autopilot semi-automated driving system on his Tesla Model S and the driver of the semi-truck that moved in front of the Tesla unexpectedly.
Tesla has been working on its own version since; known as version two. In a TED talk in 2017, Musk stated that the systems being built today would be Level 5 capable by 2019. Though that may be a long way from where Tesla is now, it wouldn’t be at all surprising.