The world’s media is talking about self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles as they are more formally known, as if they will be here in a year or two however the hype is ahead of the reality by quite some way, as William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.”
Unless you live in one of a few places, such as Phoenix, Arizona, where Waymo are trialling fully autonomous taxis, for most of us it will still be around a decade before we set off on a road journey without a human in control. That said, we are already on a journey where we will increasingly rely on our vehicles to do the driving for us.
In the auto industry the systems that automate parts of the driving process are known as driver assistance systems. Not all Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) have the same capabilities. So naturally the automotive industry, regulators and insurers have adopted categories to classify the capabilities of different types.
This is our baseline, a vehicle driven by a human, with no automation providing assistance. The driver performs all of the tasks to operate the vehicle such as steering, braking, speed control, and signals.
Level 1 – Driver Assistance
Here the vehicle can assist with some driving tasks, one at a time. A typical example is adaptive cruise control, used to have the vehicle maintain a set speed and safe distance from the vehicle ahead by automatically decelerating if traffic slows and accelerating back to the target speed when traffic clears. Similarly lane keeping assist which returns the car to the middle of the lane if the vehicle veers to the edge of a lane without the turn signal being activated. The adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist functions do not operate together.
At this level of ADAS he driver cannot hand over control to the automation, as there are still many tasks to manage that are not automated.
Level 2 – Partial Automation
Level 2 systems share the driving with the human driver. Here typically the systems take control of maintain good road position and speed, combining adaptive cruise control with lane keeping.
With these capabilities the driver can temporarily take their hands of the wheel, but still needs to have maintain situational awareness and always be ready to take back full control.
The most advanced Level 2 systems can manoeuvre to enter or exit a highway, negotiate merging lanes, or change lanes when prompted by the driver signalling to overtake a slow vehicle.
Level 3 – Conditional Automation
Delivering level 3 requires an extensive suite of sensors typically including LiDAR so that the vehicle can completely monitor its environment.
This enables capabilities such as autonomously pulling out to overtake a slower vehicle on the route, with full control of safety critical tasks, including monitoring the road and other vehicles, determining when it is safe to change lanes, controlling the steering, and speed.
A driver in a level 3 ADAS vehicle driver could safely take their hands off the wheel, but still needs to remain alert in case sudden intervention is needed – which is why current systems monitor driver alertness and impose upper speed limits on automated driving.
Level 4 – High Automation
At level 4 the interaction between the human and machine drivers drops significantly. An ADAS 4 system can steer, brake, accelerate, change lanes, signal and make turns to follow a route. So long as conditions are within the safe range the system takes over. The vehicle can handle complex situations, such as new road works, without the human needing to take over.
However, the human driver can still manually override and if necessary the vehicle can prompt the human driver to take back control. If the human is unable to respond appropriately, the vehicle will be able to bring itself to a safe stop
Level 5 - Autonomous driving
At level 5, the human is a passenger. Driving time can be productive time, or relaxation time as no human attention or intervention is required. Level 5 vehicles will not need a steering wheel, brake or gas pedals as the system will control all driving tasks under all conditions, even complex driving tasks like negotiating pedestrian crossings in busy areas.
A level 5 ADAS system will be simultaneously completing many tasks that are managed separately at lower levels such as traffic sign recognition, lane keeping, pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance, rear collision alerting, emergency braking and crossing traffic alert.
Are you ready for life without a car?
Once fleets of vehicles at ADAS level 5 are available, it is likely that our cities, roads and personal finances will be transformed. After all if you can issue a virtual whistle and summon a suitable vehicle on demand, why would you own one? If we don’t all own a car, we will need fewer parking spaces. With fewer parking spaces, maybe we could have more green spaces…maybe.
Image by Daniel.Cardenas