For a brief period in 2020, the streets were quiet. As COVID-19 took its grip on Western Europe and North America, countries one by one issued stay-at-home orders and the streets went from gridlock to lockdown. Now, as we emerge into a dramatically changed world, it seems that the future is there for the taking: we can rethink our economies, rethink school structure and, people are asking, rethink our roads.
Autonomous cars have been on the agenda of the automobile industry for years and the idea of a self-driving car has seeped into public consciousness. But just how close are we to a future on autopilot? Let’s take a look at the current state of automobile autonomy and figure out when the cars will be driving us.
On The Level
“Technology moves fast and our cars have been getting smarter over the years,” says Eve Rodriquez, a lifestyle blogger at Britstudent and Nextcoursework. “It’s hard to determine the line between autonomous and non-autonomous in automobiles given the complex technology that goes into designing cars.” The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a tiered system by which we can assess the level of autonomy present in an automobile, going from levels one to five.
For a car to reach level one, some degree of technology needs to assist drivers. Anti-lock braking systems, for example, have existed since the 1950s and at level one we see the first intersection between humans and technology in driving. Level two requires that a car can assist with breaking and steering simultaneously, but the driver’s attention is required on the road at all times, and level three describes a conditional form of automation, where cars can take control of themselves in certain contexts.
Levels four and five entail a level of automation where drivers can take their attention away from the control of a vehicle – in level four, this will be only part of the time, for example cruising on a highway and with level five we have complete automation from the beginning to the end of every journey.
As we can see, autonomy is gradual and as technology develops cars can assist us more and more in driving.
In 2020, most cars sit on level two or three of the SAE autonomy scale,” says Nathan Wells, a business writer at 1day2write and Writemyx. “Many cars can control and assist steering and braking simultaneously, whereas a few top-end models have the ability to self-park.” Self-parking, for example, provides a context where a car can, using sensors to understand its environment, perform a complex maneuver entirely independently. However, this is still highly contextual and, in the case of parking, requires static external factors such as the kerb and parked cars. For now, we’re around level three.
The technology in cars has come a long way from ABS – cars are now able to sense much of the world around them, and respond accordingly. However, thanks to grand claims from those at the top of the industry, many people believe self-driving cars have arrived. Although Elon Musk, for example, famously claimed that Tesla would produce these for market in 2020, they are yet to materialize.
In current vehicles, perhaps the closest we’ve come is Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot which was introduced in the 2017 model of the A8. With the ability to pilot the car up to 50km/h (38mph) this was broad autonomy. However, Audi discontinued this feature due to legislative hurdles, suggesting we’re some way off fully autonomous vehicles.
Although the technology may have been broadly developed, Audi’s struggles with their traffic jam pilot reveal the challenges that autonomous vehicles still face. Before these vehicles are allowed on the road, we need a conceptual shift about their viability, enabling them to be safely regulated. What’s more, self-driving vehicles need the right environment. Without lane markings and road signs in the right place, they’re unable to interpret their surroundings: for autonomous vehicles to take off, we need an updated road network.
Although we have the technology, it seems we’re still some way off fully autonomous vehicles. Unfortunately you won’t be putting your feet up while you drive any time soon – although you might, at least, get the car to park itself.