Self-driving cars and vehicles have been on the horizon for many years. Ever since the first sci-fi movies were introduced, people have dreamed of various inventions making it to the real world. Hover cars are still a dream, though it feels like they’re unlikely to ever find a place in our society. On the other hand, the concept of cars that drive themselves is very much a reality. Scientists and researchers are working around the clock to bring this innovative technology to the consumer market. In fact, we can see many instances of self-driving cars in action right now. Granted, a completely autonomous vehicle doesn’t exist, but there are plenty of cars that do include some aspects of self-driving.
In this guide, you will see how these cars work. Many of you have heard of or seen self-driving vehicles, but the technology behind them isn’t always revealed. We’ll shed some light on things to show you how the auto industry is making a sci-fi dream feel more real by the day.
What is a self-driving car?
As the name suggests, a self-driving car is a vehicle that controls its own actions. In effect, it can drive without someone holding the wheel. Throughout this guide, you may see terms like autonomous or driverless, and these refer to the same thing.
Currently, you won’t find a car on the consumer market that is 100% autonomous. This means that it will drive itself without any need for human interaction whatsoever. Regardless of the situation, the car will be able to drive itself. This level of technology doesn’t exist, and there’s a debate as to whether or not it should ever come to fruition!
Nevertheless, we do have vehicles that are classified as self-driving because they fit into specific categories. As you’ll see in the next section, these categories are called different levels of autonomy.
What are the levels of autonomy?
In total, you have six different levels of autonomous driving. This was decided by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and has since been recognized by the US Department of Transportation. The levels start at 0 and go up to 5:
This refers to the majority of the vehicles you see today. A Level 0 car will be manually controlled by the driver at all times. It might include some assistive software to help the driver, but you still control how the car drives.
A Level 1 car will have some slight assistance for the driver. You still control most of the driving, but certain technologies kick in to help in different situations. Cruise control is the best example to look at. With this technology, the car sets its own speed and keeps other vehicles at a safe distance. In essence, you take your foot off the pedal, and the car controls that aspect of driving. However, you still maintain control over the steering or braking.
We’re getting into more advanced autonomous driving here! With Level 2, you have more software in place to take on different driving tasks. The car can effectively handle multiple jobs at one time – like steering and accelerating – but you still have overall control of proceedings. A vehicle that can park itself or drive without your help on a motorway can be classed as Level 2. The main difference between this and the higher levels is that you are still sitting in the driver’s seat, ready to claim the car’s control when needed. In essence, you couldn’t start the car and let it go off without a driver in the front seat.
Level 3 is similar to Level 2 in that humans are still required to have control over the car. The technology is slightly more advanced, meaning a Level 3 autonomous vehicle can make better decisions by itself. It detects changes in the environment to adjust the way the vehicle drives or performs a task. However, drivers are still needed to stand guard and interfere if something goes wrong.
This is where things start getting more complex and technical! With Level 4 automation, the system can kick into action to address faults or issues. Basically, it fulfils the guardian role that the driver has in Level 2 and 3. So, you take more of a backseat role in letting the car deal with things by itself. The significant difference between Level 4 and 5 is that drivers still have the ability to manually override decisions. As a result, these impacts where a Level 4 car can legally be used. Right now, restrictions prevent them from being able to self-drive wherever they want.
Lastly, you have Level 5 autonomy, which requires zero human input whatsoever. A Level 5 vehicle probably won’t have brake pedals or steering wheels as it does everything itself. We are yet to see these released in the world, but it is the overall aim of self-driving technology.
Currently, most vehicles fall between Levels 0 and 2. You will find a few autonomous cars in Level 3, but they’re very new. The video below shows the world’s first Level 3 vehicle for consumer use if you’re interested to see some of the technology:
How do self-driving cars work?
So, how do these vehicles work? What technology is used to allow a car to drive by itself? Believe it or not, the premise behind autonomous vehicles isn’t that complex. Realistically, it revolves around sensors and software.
Self-driving cars come equipped with lots of sensors that map out their surroundings. These tend to be laser sensors, basically telling the internal software what the world around them looks like. The software in the cars will use this information and sends signals to different parts of the vehicle. For example, let’s say you’re driving a Tesla in its autonomous mode. This is one of the most advanced self-driving cars today, and you can take your hands off the wheel and watch the car drive itself. In this example, let’s say you’re coming up to a bend in the road. Here, the sensors detect the bend, sending signals to the brakes, accelerator pedal, and steering wheel. The car knows you have to turn, so it slows down and steers for you.
See, it’s quite straightforward! Obviously, the way the sensors and software work is far more complicated than most of us can comprehend. We can then dilute it down to the simple concept of sensors mapping out the world and software using this to control different actions. Also, autonomous cars will ‘remember’ streets and roads when you drive through them again. Some cars will even adapt based on your driving style when you go through a certain route. So, they don’t just use sensors; they also learn from the driver!
Of course, most self-driving cars still need humans to step in and take control when necessary. But, as mentioned previously, a Level 5 autonomous vehicle might not have a steering wheel! It’s crazy to imagine a world where you’re sat in a car but have no input at all.
The benefits of self-driving vehicles
Driverless vehicles present a series of potential benefits for all kinds of people. For one, it can help individuals that have difficulty driving for one reason or another. If you have bad eyesight, driving a car can be a real struggle. You will need special glasses, and while these are cheaper than an autonomous car, they might not help as much. Some people have such bad eyesight that they aren’t allowed to drive even with glasses. So, having a car that can assist you will let these people drive safely. Especially if it is a Level 4 or 5 car requiring minimal or zero driver assistance.
The same goes for people with disabilities – even a Level 1 or 2 autonomous vehicle enhances the driving experience. It makes life easier as the car can take control of different aspects of driving. For instance, you can use cruise control or a self-driving mode to let the car drive down the road. You still maintain control over proceedings and can step in if required. The difference is that your reaction times aren’t as crucial, and you don’t have to multitask as much.
Lastly, you have the contentious point of safety. In some ways, autonomous driving can be safer. The wonderfully innovative car technology can spot dangers quicker than a human. Therefore, your car can brake or slow down, avoiding accidents that you might have been unable to react to. The argument against this is that self-driving cars may be prone to more accidents due to software faults. As of right now, nobody really knows which argument holds the most truth!
On that note, you’ve come to the end of this guide to self-driving cars. Hopefully, it revealed some industry secrets that let you understand more about this innovation. What do you think about self-driving cars? Would you be happy to own one, and if so, what level of autonomy would you be comfortable with?