A brief guide to self-driving cars

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It’s no secret that the most dangerous part of a car is what is often referred to as “the nut behind the wheel.” Because of this, modern safety tech is focused more on trying to avoid a crash. Driver assist technology includes everything from stability control to autonomous emergency braking (AEB). The former applies the brakes on different corners to avoid a skid while the latter brings the car to a halt if its radars or cameras detect a crash is imminent.

These are the first steps towards what the experts call “door to door” self-driving. We’re not quite there yet but we are well on the way. Today, both Tesla and Mercedes have technology that allows the car to follow the lane markings and even change lanes by itself.

Regulators have come to define different levels of autonomy, beginning with level 0, no self-driving of any kind. Level 1 is the most basic type where one element is taken over in isolation and where the driver is still very much in control. The aforementioned lane-keeping and auto braking systems fall under this banner, as well as self-parking systems that have entered the market.

Level 2 is the next step. Here computers take over a number of functions from the driver such as changing lanes (which require more than one action from the car). Some systems can use the navigation system to automatically brake before a turn for example.

Level 3 is called “conditional automation.” Audi claims that its new A8 is capable of this. The car can take over most of the driving for you but a driver is still required to be ready to take over.

Levels 4 and 5 are more advanced systems and currently no car on the market achieves either of them. They are, for the most part, the same, but level 5 would allow the driver to take all of their focus completely away from the road. It is thought that these would be available on the market by the end of this decade.

Besides consumer trust, there is one hurdle that is not often discussed which these will have to address. Transportation is one of the biggest employers worldwide. In America for example, nearly every state has truck driver as its most common profession. Most new automotive technologies start with the high-end market and take a decade or even more to trickle down to the mainstream. But it’s easy to see how opponents of self-driving cars can use this to turn people against it.

And then there are the various philosophical questions about who is responsible in a worst-case scenario where the system fails. And that’s not to mention the issue with privacy as cars become more connected and automated.  

That’s what makes them a very interesting topic. It’s not just the technological hurdles but the moral ones as well that need to be overcome. The big question that enthusiasts ask however is much simpler. Will I still be allowed to drive myself? 

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