In 2016, Elon Musk famously said that a Tesla would be able to drive itself across the country by the end of the following year. It's 2022, and that still has not happened. As is often the case with new technology, there has been a lot of hype and the industry appears to have over-promised. How close are we really to self-driving cars? Let's take a look at a brief history and then look at the different levels of self-driving automation and where some of the different car manufacturers are today.
The History of Autonomous Driving
During the 1939 New York World’s Fair, General Motors (GM) created an exhibit during which Norman Bel Geddes unveiled a concept for the first self-driving car. An electric vehicle, the car operated independently through radio-controlled electromagnetic fields. The drawback with this technology is the car depended on magnetized metal spikes embedded in the road.
An impractical solution, GM continued to expand on the concept and loaded the front of a car with pick-up coil sensors that detected currents from a wire embedded in the road. The car was limited to knowing whether to turn left or right by adjusting the wire current.
In 1977, Japan built upon this concept by adding computer vision to cars. This was one of the first known uses of computer vision, which involved a camera system relaying data to a computer that processed images of the road. A drawback to this technique was that the car had to travel at relatively low speeds in order for the image processing to properly function.
In the 1980s, Germany developed VaMoRs, a car that was covered in cameras and could reach top speeds of 56 mph. As computer vision’s ability to reliably process images improved, so too did the speeds at which the car could travel and react safely to its environment.
The current production of self-driving cars has not reached a fully autonomous state for public roads. Tesla, for example, is currently at level 2, which indicates a semi-autonomous level of driving. But more on that later.
What is Autonomous Driving?
Autonomous driving, or self-driving, is now on the way to being considered fully road-worthy due to safety features such as advanced braking systems, sensors that can differentiate between people and other objects, lane boundary detection, and the ability to quickly react to unexpected obstacles.
Autonomous is defined as “not being controlled by outside forces and can act independently or self-directed.” Autonomous vehicles are therefore able to think and adjust themselves according to their environment without the need for a human driver.
Many autonomous cars are semi-autonomous, meaning they do require human oversight. Semi-autonomous vehicles may have safety features such as assisted parking and braking technologies while some also have the ability to park themselves. Fully autonomous cars can do all this and more by not needing a driver to assist with vehicle operation.
The benefits of autonomous driving are numerous, such as improved road safety. Drivers have a slower reaction time than computers, can get sleepy or distracted, and in some cases drive intoxicated. Self-driving cars do not have these limitations and are always alert. Through the adoption of more autonomous vehicles, the number of accidents that occur each year would hopefully drop significantly.
The Six Autonomous Driving Levels
There are six levels of autonomous driving that each vehicle must go through to be considered fully self-driving. Below is an overview of the different autonomous driving levels.
No Driving Automation
Most cars today are at level 1 with no autonomous technology at all. Human drivers are required to complete all driving tasks.
Automation with Driver Assistance
Level 2 includes driver assistance technology such as adaptive cruise control. The driver must still monitor all aspects of driving at this level, such as steering and braking.
Partial Driving Automation
This level include advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). The self-driving features include more advanced cruise control with the ability to control the steering, go faster or slow down, automatic braking and much more. It is not fully automated because a human driver must be present to take control if necessary.
Tesla currently sits at this level, though Elon Musk is focused on achieving Level 4 in the near future.
Conditional Driving Automation
This level requires a human driver to provide technological oversight. The technology at this level includes environmental detection capabilities that allow the car to make informed decisions, such as allowing the cruise control feature to speed up to pass a slower car. If the system fails in this regard or does not see an obstacle, the driver must be alert enough to take immediate action.
High Driving Automation
Level 5 builds upon the technology of level 4 with the ability to operate in self-driving mode but can only do so in a limited area through geofencing. A human must be available to intervene if necessary and has the option to manually override the autonomous technology.
Full Driving Automation
The last level of autonomous driving means no human driver is necessary at all. These cars do not require a steering wheel or pedals to operate and are not confined to specific geofencing. These cars are not yet available to the public and are undergoing additional testing.
Why Don’t We Have Self Driving Cars Yet?
It turns out that driving is a very complicated action, and while the innovation by Tesla and others is impressive, there are still times when they don’t work. The best self-driving systems today are still easily confused by the numerous “edge cases” that are thrown at human drivers every day. Rainy days, unmarked roads, and upside-down signs all still prove to be a challenge for the most advanced and sophisticated sets of software, cameras, and sensors.
Fully self-driving cars are a bold endeavor, and even though we are still not quite there yet (and it’s unclear how long it will take to truly get there), there is no question that the innovations and driver aids that have been developed along the way—such as automatic emergency braking—are a tremendous advancement and saving lives already.
Still, while human drivers suffer from distraction and there are many poor drivers out there we would all love to ‘automate’, it’s clear the self-driving capabilities are nowhere near as safe today as a good human driver. Not yet anyway.
In the latest episode of Techrides, we ride with Ganesh Iyer, Global CIO for NIO, Inc. We ride in a 2021 NIO ES8, which is a level 2 ADAS car. NIO is striving to have a level 4 car in the coming years. Check out the latest episode here.