Self-Driving Cars -- What To Know and When To Expect Them
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Self-Driving Cars -- What To Know and When To Expect Them

By Josh Noel | September 16, 2021

There Are No Self-Driving Cars Available Today

Automakers market various versions of self-driving vehicle stories, and make it sound like an amazing sci-fi fantasy. They promise to remove the frustration and stress of driving, and to reallocate that time to sleep, leisure, or other more important tasks, all while an autonomous car gets you safely to wherever you want to go.

The facts of current self-driving cars are a much different story. No vehicle sold in the United States today allows for the human driver to take their eyes off the road, or their attention away from driving the car.

The highest tech on the US market today only provides advanced driver assistance systems, which can take control of the vehicle in an emergency, or help with more mundane functions of driving under strict circumstances.

What Are the SAE Levels of Autonomous Driving?

To help organize different levels of autonomous vehicles, SAE International has created six levels to define autonomous driving capabilities and groups cars together to easily understand what they are safely capable of.

Level Zero - Vehicles at this level cannot drive themselves at all. This means your old 1986 Chrysler LeBaron, but also includes newer cars with features that can alert the driver of potential danger, but can't take control of any functions of driving to prevent an accident or assist the driver. Lane-departure warning or blind-spot monitoring are helpful features but do not qualify as autonomous tech.

Level One - Level One autonomous vehicle can take control of one aspect of driving for a brief moment. Lane-keeping assist, which can steer the car momentarily to stay between the lines is a level one technology. Adaptive cruise control also falls into this category, because it can accelerate or slow the vehicle, but not control steering.

Level Two - The most advanced systems on the US market fit in the category of Level Two automation. Any system that provides both acceleration and braking, as well as steering assistance simultaneously fits into this category. A system with both lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control, that function at the same time, would qualify as level two. Level two requires the attention of the driver at all times, as the driver may need to take control of the vehicle in an instant to avoid an accident, or if the road condition is beyond the system's abilities.

Level Three - Things are quickly trending toward Level Three automation. These systems allow the driver to turn their attention away from the road, under specific conditions. A traffic jam assist is an example of this technology. The vehicle navigates stop and go conditions and passes the driving back to a human driver when traffic has cleared. The car alerts the driver when it is time to take over. Honda claims to have released the first level three autonomous vehicle, though it is only available in Japan currently.

Level Four - The fourth tier of automation is where things really start to get interesting. Level Four vehicles can drive completely on their own under certain conditions, such as a specific map of known roads, in good weather. These vehicles are so advanced they may not have a steering wheel or pedals for a human driver at all. Several companies are testing autonomous taxis that would qualify as level four autonomous vehicles. A human driver is not required at all, but the vehicle is limited to certain uses and circumstances.

Level Five - The pinnacle of autonomous tech is Level Five. Vehicles in this class can drive on all roads and in all conditions with no driver needed. This is the dream, where you hop in the car, program your destination, and it gets you all the way there no matter what it encounters along the way. No fifth-level automation exists even in testing at this time.

Automotive manufacturers and autonomous vehicle companies are reaching towards higher levels of self-driving technology and driverless vehicles, with various systems available or in testing at the moment. Below we will discuss some of the most advanced, as well as their limitations.

Current Automakers' Hands-Free Systems:

Tesla Autopilot - Misleading name aside, Tesla's Autopilot and Full Self Driving systems, are not self-driving at all. As previously mentioned, no manufacturer offers a system higher than Level Two at this moment in the USA.

The Tesla system is adaptive cruise control that works in conjunction with a lane-keeping assist, to accelerate and decelerate the car and maintain lane position. The current system uses a camera to monitor driver attention, and alert the driver if they are not participating in driving the vehicle.

Tesla's system can be switched on by the driver and is not limited to a specific set of roads, using the vehicle's cameras and sensors to handle driving.

The naming of both the Full Self Driving and Autopilot systems have landed Tesla in hot water, and the systems are currently under investigation for crashes involving emergency vehicles parked on the roadside.

Though Tesla is working towards full autonomy, Tesla Cars are equipped with ultrasonic sensors, rather than LIDAR, which is the more common technology in the industry.

General Motors' Super Cruise - General Motors' top-shelf driver assistance system was initially available only in Cadillac vehicles like the CT6 and the Escalade but is beginning to trickle down to more mainstream brands and can be opted on their electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Bolt.

This system is much like Tesla's but allows for hands-free driving on the freeway. Super Cruise also monitors the driver's attentiveness with cameras and warns the driver to pay attention.

Super Cruise can only be activated on select roads, which have been mapped by GPS. Generally, these are divided freeways, limiting the types of situations the vehicle may have to deal with, as there are no stoplights, cyclists, or on-coming traffic.

The GM system is a subscription service, with three years included on new vehicles, and payments required to continue after that point.

Ford Blue Cruise - Like Super Cruise, Ford's Blue Cruise allows for hands-free driving on select roads. The technology is available only on the highest trims of certain Ford vehicles (like the F-150 and the all-electric Mustang Mach-E) and is also a subscription-based service with over-the-air updates. Three years of free service included.

Blue Cruise also monitors the driver with cameras, and hand positions sensors to ensure they are paying attention and prepared to take over driving when needed.

Honda SENSING Elite - Currently available only in Japan, Honda's highest technology system has been awarded a Level Three rating by authorities there. This system allows the vehicle to take over all functions of driving under certain circumstances and does not require the constant attention of the human driver.

The system works during traffic congestion and can stop, accelerate, and stop again as traffic requires. The car will stay in the same lane, and maintain a safe following distance, while the driver is allowed to watch the in-car infotainment, or fuss with the navigation system. When traffic clears, or the system otherwise needs the human to take over, it uses an escalating series of alarms, visual alerts, and vibrations to pass off driving responsibilities.

The car can even pull over to the shoulder and stop if the driver does not re-engage with the controls. The tech is extremely limited, with just 100 Level Three ready vehicles being sold, and only on the Honda Legend Hybrid EX which will cost the equivalent of just over $100,000.

Other Automated Features:

Another interesting feature from automakers is various levels of "self-parking" vehicles.

Hyundai offers a smart parking feature on some cars which allows the car to park itself, under strict circumstances, while the driver controls the vehicle with buttons on the key fob from outside the vehicle.

Mercedes-Benz offers an active parking assist, in which the car steers itself, and instructs the driver to modulate the gas and brake.

Both Mercedes and Audi are currently testing true self-parking vehicles which will let the driver out, and then go find a parking spot, as well as pick the driver up again.

True Self-Driving Vehicle Projects

Aside from automakers, several startups and more established companies are working on true self-driving.

This division of Google's parent company Alphabet is one of the leaders in the robotaxi movement. This self-driving car project has a fleet of Jaguar I Pace and Chrysler Pacificas in Phoenix, Arizona, and San Francisco, California which have been heavily modified and are testing as self-driving taxis.

Waymo uses a combination of detailed mapping and GPS to lay the groundwork for their self-driving tech. This mapping includes the locations of traffic lights, stop signs, and road conditions.

Waymo vehicles then use LIDAR sensors, a plethora of cameras, and other technology to see the world around them. The last piece is Waymo's advanced computer technology. Machine learning and artificial intelligence allow Waymo vehicles to compile data from past real-world experience to make decisions, as well as attempt to predict possible future situations.

Uber and Lyft
These ride-share companies also had driverless car projects until very recently. Aurora Innovations recently acquired Uber's driverless taxi division and is headed by a former Google engineer. Lyft sold its self-driving division to Toyota, and Toyota showed off some of its continuing investment in self-driving cars at the Tokyo Olympics.

Uber and Lyft departing from the robotaxi arena show how incredibly difficult and expensive it is to develop self-driving technology. Even tech giants like Apple are often rumored to be working on automated vehicles, but those rumors have yet to materialize into actual vehicles on the road.

What's Ahead:

If mainstream automakers, startup companies, and the titans of the tech industry are struggling with true self-driving vehicles, it is probably going to be quite a while before you can hop in a car and sleep, work, or play, while it safely drives you from New York to Los Angeles.

The current driver aids all demand close attention by a human driver, despite what advertising and marketing may suggest. These systems all have limitations, and treating them as autonomous vehicles is outside the scope of their abilities and can result in deadly accidents.