What will define fully autonomous, self-driving cars?
The automotive industry has advertised and sold automatic, electric, smart, connected and digital vehicles. Now, most automotive producers are either testing or involved in tests concerning self-driving vehicles. It’s the next big thing. Experts are certain that the introduction and adoption of fully autonomous cars will occur very soon, but disagree on whether this means in five or ten years’ time.
Moreover, the different artificial intelligence platforms that will substitute human drivers will provide a range of different capabilities, features and even safety guarantees. At first cars, vehicles will be partially independent as, in some cases, they already are, but the end goal is to develop a fully autonomous car that requires no steering wheels and no human attention at all.
When will we know that we have definitively crossed the threshold from smart connected vehicles to fully autonomous vehicles?
What is a Self-Driving Car?
This area of inquiry has been tackled by SAE International, a global association of over 128,000 engineers and technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industries, which has developed a common reference framework of definitions and classifications to harmonize the global ranking of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles.
SAE J3016 International Standard
The SAE J3016 International Standard identifies six levels of driving automation from “no automation” to “full automation,” in which levels 0-2 are characterized by the presence of a human driver who must still monitor the driving environment, while levels 3-5 describe a technology in which autonomous artificial intelligence systems are responsible for all driving and monitor activities.
SAE levels are characterised by increasing automation:
SAE Level 0 – No Automation
These are the traditional cars with which we grew up. Humans control all aspects of driving and road monitoring.
SAE Level 1 - Driver Assistance
This where we are today. Humans are still in charge of driving, but a variety of computer systems provide assistance with braking and navigating, as well as, in some cases, advanced steering and acceleration/deceleration features.
SAE Level 2 - Partial Automation
In level 2 systems, vehicle steering and speed are controlled by computerised systems, but human drivers controls all other aspects of driving.
SAE Level 3 - Partial Automation
At this level, vehicles are considered automated driving systems, which independently monitor the driving environment around them. This means that level 3 vehicles make independent decisions. Human drivers are still required, but they only need to monitor driving and take over in case of emergency.
Level 4 - High Automation
SAE describes Level 4 as "driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene." At this level, cars are expected to solve emergency situations, too, without human intervention.
Level 5 - Full Automation
At this level, no human control of the vehicle is necessary. This means that the vehicles are fully autonomous and do not require any pedals, steering wheels, or other mechanical control interfaces for human drivers.
Beyond the taxonomy developed by SAE, the future of self-driving cars will depend on the machine learning characteristics of the individual artificial intelligence platforms that operate the vehicles. The safest vehicles will not only be able to rely on big data banks to instantly crunch thousands – maybe millions – of similar cases and make real-time decisions, but will also rely on the vehicle’s own “accrued experiences,” which will continue to recursively feed the artificial intelligence platform.
The Future of Transport
There will come a day when even SAE level five vehicles will appear outdated. And this day may not be that far off. The continuous exponential progress of technology advances by leaps and bounds and we know that true innovation comes in breakthroughs, rather than through gradual steps.
However, the human factor always plays a crucial role in the adoption of all new technology. Governments will be called upon to introduce new legislation addressing driverless vehicles. And how soon will drivers (and passengers) feel comfortable with self-driving cars? Beyond technological know-how, the advent and very definition of driverless vehicles will be expedited or delayed by our own actions, fears and desires.
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