Realistically when will we see Driverless Cars?
As car companies compete feverishly to develop and bring functional driverless cars to market when are we really likely to see them asks Geraldine Herbert
Only a decade ago, driverless cars were part of science fiction. Now many manufacturers produce cars that feature high-tech driver assistance technologies and fully autonomous vehicles are likely to be with us in the next decade, or are they?
Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Tesla and Volvo all offer cars with driverless features. By 2020 Google is planning to start selling its autonomous vehicles while Elon Musk is pledging that by the end of this year, he’ll produce a Tesla that can drive itself from Los Angeles to New York City. Ford’s CEO announced that the company plans to offer fully self-driving vehicles by 2021. The industry is expected to balloon to a $42 billion global market by 2025 according to the Boston Consulting Group.
There are essentially six degrees of automated driving: as defined by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and SAE (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers) and they are a useful guide for understanding what’s left to achieve for a truly autonomous car.
Level 0 –No Automation
The driver has complete control over their car including the steering, breaking, and accelerator.
Level 1 –Driver Assistance
Small elements of driving such as braking can be done automatically by the car. Almost all new cars now come with some form of Level 1 automation.
Level 2 –Partial Automation
At least two functions are automated such as lane positioning and cruise control. The driver remains at all times in control but they can take their hands off the steering wheel and foot off the pedals. Tesla’s “autopilot” system which provides automated driving functions in limited circumstances is classed as Level 2 as it continues to require a driver’s full attention. Other examples include the Mercedes E-Class (Drive Pilot) and the BMW 7 series (Driving Assistant Plus). The Mercedes Level 2 system, Drive Pilot debuted on the 2017 the E-Class and it is currently the only production car that has been granted an autonomous driving license in Nevada. The system can autonomously change lanes, if a driver signals a lane change,
Level 3 –Conditional Automation
This level is distinguished from Level 2 by the fact that while the driver is still present they can safely take their eyes off the road as they are not required to monitor and make decisions as with the previous levels. The Audi A7 Self-driving Prototype demonstrated this level of automation and coming in 2018, Audi’s A8 will be the first Level 3 autonomous car to hit the market. It will be capable of autonomously accelerating, braking and steering up to 50 kph. In 2018, Nissan will introduce their ProPILOT 2.0 system, capable of supporting autonomous multiple-lane driving, including lane changes and features that will allow for full urban driving, including intersection turns, by 2020.
Level 4 –High Automation
Vehicles at this level are designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for the entire trip. Ford has pledged that by 2021 their first fully autonomous level 4-capable vehicle will be launched and will operate without a steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal. Volvo’s is currently in the process of recruiting 100 families in Gothenburg, Sweden to take part in their Drive Me autonomous car experiments. The car will be operating at level 4 as they will be capable of driving themselves all of the time on motorways and deal with a range of situations without human intervention; in the event of something going wrong the car is programmed to safely stop at the side of the road. Volvo also plan to conduct similar trails in the UK, China and the US in the near future.
Level 5 –Full Automation
This stage simply means that the vehicle is fully autonomous and has no steering wheel or general controls for a human to use, cars may drive themselves in all cases, completely without humans on board. Experts do not see this being achieved within the next 15 years.
The challenges facing driverless cars are not simply technological there is likely to be plenty of bumps in the road before the final destination. One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of a legal and regulatory framework outlining how autonomous vehicles must operate. There is also the issue of trust, putting your life in the hands of a computer requires totally reliable and robust software that is unlikely to crash, be vulnerable to hackers or even weather interference. Then there is the issue of ethics, is it really possible to reduce moral judgements to computer code? And what if it all proves simply too expensive, the sophisticated interconnected network of sensors, cameras, radars etc. puts the price of autonomous cars out of reach of most consumers?
The road to self driving will certainly be an interesting one…..
Geraldine Herbert, Motoring Journalist and Correspondent.