Autonomous vehicles (also known as self-driving cars and driverless cars) are a hot topic in the automotive world.
Cars that drive themselves is the stuff of sci-fiction movies and tech conferences.
So how close are we to a world in which cars drive themselves?
What is a self-driving car?
In short, a self-driving car is a car that uses a range of technologies to drive itself, without any need for a human driver.
While this full automated vision may be the ultimate goal of car makers, getting there is a process of evolution, which the Society of Automotive Engineers has defined as having six levels.
Level 0 – No automated systems on the car.
Level 1 – The car has a driver assistance system, but the driver is still in control. Cruise control, for example, keeps the car at a safe distance behind the car in front, but the human driver still has to steer and brake.
Level 2 – Electronic systems can control two or more aspects of the car, such as accelerating and steering (features that help you stay in your lane, for example). A human driver is still in charge, though.
Level 3 – This is known as ‘conditional automation’, which means that all aspects of driving can be controlled by the car’s electronic systems, but the driver must be able to respond to a request by the car to take over.
Level 4 – A driver isn't required to intervene at all, because the electronic systems can do all the work of operating the car – but only in certain areas that are kept within a defined area, (or ‘geofenced’ in the jargon).
Level 5 – This is a fully self-driving car, with no human interaction required. These cars won’t even need steering wheels. It can go anywhere and cope with any kind of road.
Where are we now?
As much as car manufacturers like to make claims about the cleverness of their cars, we’re really only at Level 2 at the moment.
This means that all drivers need to stay alert, with their hands on the wheel, even if it is equipped with lots of driver assistance technology.
There are lots of cars now on sale with features like adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping and speed assist that all help drivers avoid collisions.
But these are called driver assistance features for good reason: they can only assist drivers, not take over from them.
It doesn't help that car companies call their driver assistance features names such as Autopilot (Tesla) and ProPilot (Nissan). This type of name is dangerously confusing for car buyers.
A #TestingAutomation survey commissioned by Euro NCAP, Global NCAP and Thatcham Research found that 53% of UK drivers believe that they can purchase a car that can drive itself today, with 11% saying that they would be tempted to have a quick nap while behind the wheel.
The importance of driverless cars
There are many critics of self-driving cars, believing that no machine can drive as well as a human.
They have a point: the human brain can make a decision in a split-second and can draw on years of driving experience when confronted with a potentially dangerous situation.
Even the best artificial intelligence systems can’t match this ability yet.
However, road safety studies also show that 90-95% of collisions are caused by human error.
If we can develop self-driving cars with no human involvement, we could have much safer roads, with millions of lives saved around the world, not to mention massively reduced insurance costs.
What can driverless cars actually do?
Euro NCAP, the body that is responsible for testing cars to discover how safe they are, is now starting to assess the various assistance systems fitted in manufacturers’ models.
It started by assessing the highway assist systems onboard the following 10 models: Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, DS 7 Crossback, Ford Focus, Hyundai Nexo, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, Toyota Corolla and Volvo V60.
Although Euro NCAP isn’t rating the assistance systems yet (it will from 2020), the initial conclusions are that no car on the market today offers full automation or autonomy.
The current models can provide driver assistance, but this should not be confused with automated driving.
The technologies these cars use can help the driver to maintain a safe distance, speed and to stay within the lane, but they can’t be relied upon as an alternative to safe and controlled driving.
When to expect autonomous cars
The different driver assistance technologies that are the building blocks for autonomous driving are already in place in many cars, so we’re not far off self-driving cars becoming a reality.
Euro NCAP thinks that Level 4, where no human interaction is required to drive the car in 99% of situations, could be possible by 2021.
While that might seem close, the reality is autonomous cars aren’t quite there yet, so as tempting as it may be, don’t take a nap behind the wheel just yet.