Unraveling Autonomy: The Journey of Self-Driving Cars

For several decades, we’ve been told that the near future holds self-driving cars as a possibility. In 2023, it seems we’re much closer than ever before.

Autonomous vehicles, also known as self-driving cars, might be the future, but there’s a lot to unpack with these vehicles. Before we have cars that can reach full autonomy, they must prove worthy of being driven without human intervention and without causing any safety concerns. Although we don’t yet have fully autonomous vehicles, we do have some safety systems as a result of continued research and development in this area of driving technology.

Do we currently have any autonomous vehicles?

Although some companies are testing various levels of autonomy, no cars on today’s roads are fully capable of driving without human intervention yet. Some companies have tried different ways to package advanced driver assistance systems into higher levels of autonomy, but human intervention continues to be required in all cars on the road. Even the Tesla Autopilot system, which has been poorly named to the point of causing issues, isn’t a full-self driving system. In fact, it’s always been advertised as a partial self-driving system, but that hasn’t prevented some drivers from getting too comfortable with this system and allowing it to handle the drive.

What companies are working on autonomous driving?

Most automakers include a portion of their R&D programs that are dedicated to creating self-driving cars for the future. Aside from these automakers, several companies are working on this technology as well. Some of these companies include Waymo, Argo AI, and Cruise. These companies are putting geofenced autonomous cars on public roads for real-world testing. In some cities, customers can hail these cars and ride to their destinations without the driver ever needing to touch the steering wheel or the pedals.

What does it mean when a car is geofenced?

Geofencing is used to describe a limited area of operation for a vehicle. This vehicle is restricted to this geographic area and can operate without human intervention in these spaces. Waymo currently operates in a geofenced part of Phoenix where these autonomous vehicles can safely move about in a confined area with other cars. Geofencing isn’t a realistic solution to the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles in the future, but it does get things started and could become more popular in some major metro areas.

What are the various levels of self-driving cars?

There are currently six levels, numbers zero through five, to describe various degrees of autonomy and system intervention during driving. These six levels and their degree of control are:

  • Level Zero – Warnings and brief takeovers, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, lane departure warning
  • Level One – Steering OR acceleration/braking intervention, lane centering or adaptive cruise control but not both
  • Level Two – Steering AND acceleration/braking intervention, lane centering and adaptive cruise control
  • Level Three – Can drive independent of human intervention under certain conditions, Ford Blue Cruise, GM Super Cruise
  • Level Four – Geofenced autonomous driving, steering wheel optional, Waymo’s local driverless taxi in Phoenix
  • Level Five – Fully-autonomous driving on any road without the need for a geofence

Where do the most advanced current vehicles reside?

Most of the vehicles we currently see on the road or as part of the new car market fall without Level Two or Three for automation. These are steps toward self-driving cars, but getting to Levels Four and Five will require much more development and difficulty to bring us to fully autonomous driving on every road. Unless you have a vehicle with the Tesla’s Autopilot, Ford’s Blue Cruise, GM’s Super Cruise, or any other system on this level, then you’ve got a vehicle that typically falls into Level Two for autonomous driving.

Do future EVs offer more opportunities for autonomous driving?

Electric vehicles require more advanced computerization and electronics than ICE models, but that doesn’t instantly mean these electric vehicles will adopt autonomous features better than a traditional model. That said, we’ll see more advanced ADAS in EVs going forward than what we see in ICE vehicles. This has a lot to do with EV drivers being more willing to accept new technology than those looking at traditional vehicles.

The future of driving could be in self-driving cars, but there’s a long way to get from Level Three to Four or Five. Additionally, we can expect a great deal of government regulation to become part of this new technology, which could set things back rather than move them forward.

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