March 16, 2019
Self-driving cars: the media (whether, for you, that means reading web sites, reading physical papers/magazines, or listening to the radio) seems to be telling us that self-driving cars are finally here. Or that those self-driving cars are almost here. Or even that self-driving cars will never be here. So, who's right?
Newer cars come with many driver-assist technologies like making sure you're in your lane, blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control, parallel parking assist, back up cameras and more. If that's your definition of self-driving cars, then they're here.
If you want a car that drives you to your destination without any help from you at all, well, we're getting closer. Most of the major car manufacturers (Ford, GM, Mercedes, etc.), ride-hailing companies (Uber, Lyft, etc.), tech companies (Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.), and many start-ups you've never heard of, are working on the hardware and software that will make a hands-off, self-driving car a reality.
There's even a government standard for defining what self-driving means. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has defined six levels of car autonomy.
Level 0: No Automation
A Level 0 vehicle has no self-driving capabilities at all, you do all the driving. Yes, that means a level 0 car isn't self-driving at all. Your first car was a level 0 car.
Most cars on the road today are level 0 cars.
Level 1: Driver Assistance
A level 1 vehicle contains technology that will assist with either steering or braking, but not both. Adaptive cruise control is level 1 technology because it can brake your car to keep a specified distance from the car in front of you. But it can't steer your car.
Many cars and trucks sold since 2015 include level 1 technology.
Level 2: Partial Automation
A level 2 vehicle can assist with both steering and braking at the same time. You still must pay full attention to the road, and you need to be ready to take over at any time. A vehicle with adaptive cruise control that can also steer to keep your vehicle centered in the lane is a level 2 vehicle.
GM's Super Cruise is an example of Level 2. With a Super Cruise-enabled vehicle, you can take your hands off the steering wheel and the car will keep you in your lane and away from the car in front of you. Tesla's Autopilot works the same way, but GM's system also has cameras aimed at your eyes. If GM's cameras detect you are not paying attention to the road, the system will disable itself.
There are some level 2 vehicles on the road, but it's new (and expensive) technology now.
Level 3: Conditional Automation
You can finally read the paper on your way to work in a level 3 vehicle. A little bit, anyway. Drivers are still required in a level 3 car and required to be ready to take control if something happens on the road that the car can't figure out. The sketchy part here is a driver might not have the time to figure out how to proceed safely. Level 3 automation will probably be used for slow-speed, contained situations like stop and go traffic.
There are currently no level 3 vehicles for sale in the U.S.
Level 4: High Automation
Level 4 vehicles can do all the driving, but only in certain circumstances. The vehicle is smart enough to know how to handle almost all situations. Currently, level 4 vehicles have trouble in rain and snow, so the vehicle might not let you switch to self-driving mode in bad weather.
Lots of companies are testing level 4 vehicles, although currently all are using safety drivers.
A self-driving car company called Waymo (part of Google) does have a full level 4 vehicle running as a taxi in Arizona. The service is only available to specially-picked Waymo research customers. But not in the rain, yet.
Level 5: Full Automation
Level 5 vehicles require no driver at all. There is at least one level 5 vehicle on the road, but it's not for people, it's for groceries.
A company called Nuro is working with Krogers to test small cars to deliver your groceries. They drive themselves from the store to your house and then back. Limiting the speed, the distance, and the road conditions the little cars operate in is a safe way to develop the level of technologies needed for the vehicles that drive themselves at high speed with passengers.
Here's a link to a Forbes story on Nuro: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alanohnsman/2018/06/28/grocery-kroger-nuro-with-tech-startup-nuro-for-robo-delivery-service/#3c98cfb0517a.
We're still a long way from completely self-driving cars, but lots of the technology is already in the cars around you.
Someday this will be less true than today
Apparently I snore so loudly it scares everyone in the car I'm driving.