A lot has been said and written about autonomous driving. Billions of venture capital dollars are flowing into the industry and many corporate giants are involved. However, other than the Tesla Autopilot system that customers have been posting footage of, there isn’t much to show. Is substantial progress being made in the autonomous driving space? What is keeping the science-fiction trope of the past from becoming a reality?
Creating fully self-driving vehicles isn’t as simple a task as it seems. Cars need to be able to analyze data concerning their environment. They also need to be in constant communication with the vehicles around them. For this, the presence of a reliable data transfer grid needs to be in place before self-driving cars even hit the road. This is expected to be in the form of wireless 5G technology.
Before looking into the current state of the industry, it’s important to understand what is meant by autonomous driving. To what degree does a vehicle need to be responsible for getting you to your destination to be called autonomous?
What is Autonomous Driving?
As unbelievable as it may seem, cruise control first appeared in 1948. In a way, this feature was a primitive step toward autonomous driving. Giving control of cruising speed to a mechanism out of the driver’s direct control is a convenience that many appreciate. However, it’s safe to say that you would not equate this feature to autonomous driving.
A self-driving car is an automobile that can sense its surroundings and operate without human input. An autonomous vehicle doesn’t need the driver to take control of the car at any point during the trip. On the contrary, autonomous vehicles should be able to operate without the presence of a human at all.
Is There Autonomous Driving in 2021?
In regard to the definition given above, autonomous driving is not available. To further understand the current state of autonomous driving, it’s helpful to know the levels of vehicle autonomy. This scale of automation is a six-rung ladder that shows the evolution of vehicles toward self-driving cars.
There is no automation at all with Level 0 vehicles. The driver must steer, accelerate and brake without assistance.
Level 1 vehicles offer the least driver assistance. They have a low level of automation such as cruise control.
With Level 2 vehicles, you start to see partial driving automation. The car can control steering and acceleration and deceleration. Tesla models that carry the Tesla Autopilot system qualify as Level 2 autonomy.
Level 3 pertains to conditional driving autonomy. The technology required to get to this level from the previous one is significant. To the human eye, though, the difference is slight.
Cars that classify as Level 3 can detect elements in their environment. They can speed up to pass another car. These vehicles can also stay in a lane within reason and help make the driving experience more relaxing for the driver. In a Level 3 car, the driver becomes more of an active passenger. You still need to be aware of what’s going on and be ready to intervene when necessary. Parallel park assist is another feature of level 3 automation.
Going from a Level 3 vehicle to Level 4 means that the car is able to make adjustments in the event of a system failure. The driver must still be present and aware, but in most cases, the car will be able to complete most of the journey without input.
As you can imagine, Level 5 vehicles are at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Cars created with this level of autonomy will be able to operate without the presence of a driver. While prototypes of Level 5 vehicles are being tested, none are available to the public.
Cars With Self-Driving Features Currently Available
At this juncture, there are Level 3 cars circulating in parts of the United States and other countries. Lane assist, blind-spot monitoring, brake assist and park assist are becoming common features in many vehicles. Level 4 vehicles are being tested in controlled environments, and Level 5 models are in the early stages of development.
Vehicles with conditional driving autonomy currently in use include cars being used in ride-hailing services. The cars participating in these consumer-centric services will populate the future fleets of companies like Uber and Lyft.
Cruise, a General Motors endeavor, is using its autonomous systems on its Chevrolet Bolt. The company’s ride-hailing service is based in San Francisco and is set to expand to other locations when network connectivity permits.
Waymo, an Alphabet subsidiary, is running its own ride-hailing service in Phoenix, AZ. Unlike General Motors, which uses vehicles from its catalog as part of its Cruise project, Waymo does not produce cars. Instead, it modifies vehicles, such as the Chrysler Pacifica. The Pacifica is Waymo’s car of choice for its ride-hailing venture.
Vehicles with self-driving features that are currently available for purchase include the 2021 Acura ILX, the 2021 Audi A4 and the Cadillac XT and CT series. All auto manufacturers have included a degree of autonomy in their models. Adaptive cruise control and lane-centering are the common features that car makers provide. New self-driving capabilities will be added as the wireless capabilities of the data grid expand to the point where they can support advanced autonomy features.
When Will Autonomous Cars Be a Reality?
If you’re anxious to live in a world where cars all drive themselves, you may have to wait a bit. In mid-2020, experts predicted that one in 10 vehicles will be completely autonomous by the year 2030. Until then, infrastructure will need to adapt to meet the specifications of self-driving cars. As you can imagine, once this initial percentage of autonomous vehicles hit the roads, it won’t take long for others to follow. Within a few years, the number of self-driving cars in use will outnumber what is currently considered conventional.
In the meantime, legacy automobiles will gradually become a thing of the past. As an intermediate step, some older models may be fitted with autonomous technology in order to take advantage of the benefits that self-driving technology will offer.
The Future Is Closer Than You Think
While you may not soon get the flying cars from your childhood cartoon shows, a paradigm shift in the automobile industry is imminent. After the steep increase in electric cars, the self-driving revolution is soon to follow. Within a decade, fully autonomous vehicles will start to populate the roads while self-driving trucks will begin to transform the logistics industry.
Ride-sharing companies may eventually replace the need for owning a car. Traffic accidents will be reduced to a rarity and optimal energy efficiency will be achieved. Bottlenecks and may become a thing of the past as sophisticated software will ensure that the flow of traffic is constant and breakdowns are dealt with in a timely fashion.
Until then, feel free to explore the innovative technologies that accompany many of today’s cars. You’ll be surprised by the innovation hidden under the hood of your favorite model.