Driverless Vehicles: How Long Really Until Your Car Can Drive You to Work?

If you believe the headlines in the papers, you may be anticipating the arrival of fully driverless vehicles on our roads at the end of the year. The UK government has already legislated for advanced trails of autonomous vehicles on our roads – but is the technology up to expectations?

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Autonomous Car Technology

To make a car truly autonomous and able to drive without any need for human intervention, a LOT of different technology is required. The vehicle needs to be able to ‘see’ and understand its surroundings – signs, traffic lights and road layout, to name just a few. It also needs to be able to regulate its speed, know where it is going and correctly identify obstacles like cyclists and pedestrians so it’s safe for passengers and other road users. With all of that input, the car needs to be able to make sound judgements that reduce the risk of accidents, if not eradicate them completely.

The DfT has also specified that driverless cars must also collect data such as speed, braking commands and the presence of other road users, so a high level of cybersecurity needs to be included in a driverless car’s technological stack to ensure cars can’t be ‘hacked’ and have their safety compromised.

At present, the technology required to enable truly autonomous vehicles – the kind that will drive you to work while you catch up on sleep or emails – just isn’t there, yet. No matter what the political will is, further development by car manufacturers and software houses is needed.


The Steps toward a Driverless Future

To understand how close, or how far away, we are from truly driverless vehicles, it is useful to understand the different levels of autonomy that need to be mastered before cars are able to do our bidding. SAE International, a global association of engineers and technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industries have put together a handy guide on the five levels of autonomy and what they mean for a driverless future.

Starting at 0 – no automation and finishing at five – full automation, the path toward a driverless future includes four incremental steps. These steps are necessary for the development of the technology as well as wider public acceptance of it.

Driver assistance packages like cruise control are considered to be level 1. Level 2 – partial automation – involves both steering and speed being controlled by autonomous systems; like Mercedes-Benz’s Lane Keeping Assist, Reverse parking assist and Adaptive Cruise Control.

Level 3 is also referred to as partial automation but at a slightly higher level. The driving system needs to monitor the surroundings and respond to them in an intelligent way using Artificial Intelligence (AI). With level 3 autonomy, the human driver is only there to intervene should things go awry and this is where most testing is now taking place. Level 4 and 5 autonomous tech is yet to be released or reliably developed – neither requires the intervention of a human driver.

Given the scale of the technological task and where we currently sit within the levels of autonomy needed to see driverless car on our roads – either in a commercial or private capacity – it’s unlikely you’ll be commanding an AI Jeeves to take you to work, or drive your children to school by the end of 2021, but sometime between 2025 and 2030 you may well relinquish control to your car.


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