North American International Car Show: Can Cars Drive Themselves Yet?

Autonomous vehicle image

Not long ago, many thought flying cars would be the next frontier in personal transportation. Then huge advances in computers, car sensors, and vehicle technology made autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars) the next horizon. And it seems like we haven’t made much progress; we are still waiting for the ambitious deadlines that car companies set several years ago.

So where are we now? We remain in the simulation and data-gathering phase—one that will take quite some time. Let’s take a look at some of the goals that car companies have set, where we are now, and when we can expect to see autonomous vehicles on the road.

Levels of Automation

First, it’s important to understand what car companies mean by self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles. It can sometimes differ from what we think of as consumers. That’s because there are different levels of automation. When you think of someone able to fully disconnect (not take over the controls at any point in a trip)—and maybe even sleep in the back of the car—that is the highest level of automation (Level 5). Car companies are still far from this result. Here is an explanation of each level of automation:

Level 1:  Some driver assistance is applied, such as steering or acceleration tasks are performed by the car without human intervention. Many cars on the road today have some aspects of Level 1 automation, but all still require a driver to be present and perform all driving tasks.

Level 2:  Partial automation is included. These can include features such as advanced cruise control or some systems such as Tesla’s original autopilot system. The car will take safety actions, but the driver is still necessary and needs to stay alert and at the wheel of their vehicle.

Level 3:  Conditional automation is included. This is one of the trickiest levels because it is difficult to understand how much of the responsibility the driver needs to take. Under certain conditions, this car can completely drive itself, but there are some dangers to the car driving on its own. Many car companies have attempted to bypass Level 3 and move directly into Level 4 automation.

Level 4:  This is what we think of as a car that can drive itself. Almost all of the time, it requires no human action or input, but it could be programmed so that the driver could take over in unmapped terrain or during abnormal or severe weather conditions. This is a car where you could read or sleep in while it is running.

Level 5:  Level 5 is full automation, meaning there is not an opportunity for anyone to drive the car—only the car itself can drive.

It is at Levels 3 and above that many of the obstacles to adoption come into play. We will need new laws, insurance practices, infrastructure, technology, and ethical guidelines to be introduced before these cars can get on the road.

Companies in the Race

Though there are still many companies racing to develop the best self-driving cars, 2017 saw a consolidation of different players. In order to better develop the technologies and collect data, Intel has partnered with Mobileye, GM has partnered with Uber, and Waymo (Google’s self-driving car sector) has partnered with Lyft. All of these companies (and others) have ambitious goals for the future. Here is where each one currently stands:

  • Tesla:  The goal for a fully-autonomous autopilot was originally the end of 2017. In order to ensure the safety of all drivers, Tesla is still testing for a launch in 2018.
  • Waymo:  Waymo is Google’s self-driving car sector. Google probably has the most extensive data storage so far, with its autonomous vehicles logging more than 25,000 autonomous miles a week in 2017. Though Waymo cars were placed on some roads in Phoenix, AZ  in November of 2017, it will be a while before this technology is ready to be rolled out to the rest of the country.
  • Volvo:  In 2015, Volvo revealed plans for a launch of 100 self-driving cars in Gothenburg, Sweden by 2017. Earlier last year, the company called off this launch, citing the need for further testing and data gathering. Now, the company plans to launch fully-autonomous vehicles by the year 2021.
  • General Motors:  General Motors is taking a different approach, proposing a fully autonomous ride-sharing service as early as 2019. Testing is underway, although not without difficulties. There are still unexpected obstacles that the driverless vehicles have trouble recognizing and avoiding.
  • Ford:  With similar goals to General Motors, Ford plans to release a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021.
  • Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai have all been more conservative in their autonomous vehicle goals, offering highway only automation by 2020 and level 4 automation proposed by 2025 (for Honda and Toyota) and 2030 (for Hyundai).
  • Nissan:  Instead of planning to release highway autonomy first, Nissan plans to launch fully autonomous urban vehicles by 2020. The company plans to launch fully driverless vehicles by 2025.  
  • Daimler:  Daimler has teamed up with Bosch to propose near full autonomy by 2020, with full autonomy at least by 2025.
  • BMW:  BMW plans to release fully autonomous vehicles by 2021.

What 2018 Will Bring

2018 will continue the simulation, testing, and data collection phases of vehicle automation. It will also likely raise several debates and public discourses on multiple topics, including the effectiveness of Artificial Intelligence, ethical considerations, new laws, and regulations in data collection and privacy.

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