The future is on its way — self-driving cars are closer to becoming commonplace and fully operational than ever before. Officially, self-driving vehicles don’t need human drivers to take over for safe-operation of the car. They are also referred to as autonomous or “driverless” cars. Though often touted as driverless, there are no fully self-driving cars operating legally in the United States — yet.
Self-driving cars combine sensors and computer software to control and navigate the vehicle. The latest models are only partially autonomous and include traditional cars with braking assistance and nearly-independent driverless car prototypes. Researches differentiate the layers of autonomy on a scale of 0-5:
Level 0: No automatic functionality. Humans operate and control all major systems. This includes cars with cruise control because the driver sets and alters the speed as needed
Level 1: Driver assistance required. Certain systems like adaptive cruise control or automated braking can be controlled by the car when engaged, individually, buy the human driver.
Level 2: Partial automation options available. The vehicle offers at least two simultaneously operable automatic functions at specific times, like steering and acceleration on a highway, but still requires a human driver. The car will match your speed to traffic and follow curves in the road, but the driver must ready to cover the systems many limitations at all times. Level 2 systems include Tesla Autopilot, Volvo Pilot Assist, Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, and Cadillac Super Cruise.
Level 3: Conditional automation. The car manages all critical safety operations under specific conditions but the human driver must take over when alerted. The car monitors the environment instead of the human, but the human shouldn’t doze off, as they will need to know how to take over when called for.
Level 4: High automation. The car is fully-autonomous in most dynamic driving situations, though not all. It will still need driver intervention in poor weather conditions or unusual environments. Level 4 cars will still feature a steering wheel and pedals for human driving when necessary.
Level 5: Fully automated. In every driving situation, the car uses completely autonomous driving and only asks humans to punch in directions.
How do Self-Driving Cars Work?
Though the design differs between manufacturers, most self-driving cars feature an internal map of their surroundings created and maintained by a variety of sensors and input transmitters. Nearly all self-driving vehicles perceive surroundings using a combination of video cameras, radar, and lidar — a system that uses light from a laser. All the information picked up by these input systems is processed by software to form a path and send instructions to the car’s operations. These include acceleration, braking, steering, etc., and hard-coded rules and obstacle-avoidance algorithms for safe navigation and obeying traffic laws.
Current self-driving models are all partially autonomous and require human drivers. Future, fully-autonomous models, however, may not even need a steering wheel. Some can also qualify as being “connected,” meaning they can communicate with other cars on the road or infrastructure.
Why are Self-Driving Cars Happening?
Consumers and corporations alike have an interest in self-driving car technology. Whether it’s a convenience factor or a smart business investment, here are 6 reasons why driverless cars are on their way to becoming prevalent:
1. Commuting: Commuters with a long, traffic-filled drive to and from work like the idea of being able to catch up tv shows, books, sleep, or even work. Though not quite reality yet, future car owners want to anticipate owning a self-driving car to, if not save them time on the road, at least let them focus on other interests while traveling to and from.
2. Rideshare Companies: Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft aim to produce driverless taxis to eliminate the need for human drivers (and paying human drivers). They would instead focus on creating safe, quick, and direct rides to locations.
3. Automotive Manufacturers: Supposedly, autonomous cars will reduce the rate of car accidents. Car companies want to support driverless technology to improve crash safety ratings, with artificial intelligence ratings potentially becoming a selling point for future car buyers.
4. Traffic Avoidance: Some automotive companies and tech corporations are working to develop driverless cars that will track traffic conditions and parking at destinations within designated cities. This means these cars will reach places faster and more efficiently than non-driverless cars. They will take over the job of the driver looking at smartphones and GPS devices for directions to the fastest route, and work in conjunction with local governments.
5. Delivery Services: Cutting back on the cost of labor, delivery companies look to self-driving cars. Packages and food can be transported efficiently with the use of an autonomous vehicle. Car companies like Ford have begun testing this service by using a car that’s not actually self-driving — but designed to look like it is — to gauge public reaction.
6. Subscription Driving Service: Some car companies are working to develop a fleet of driverless cars customers pay to use or own. Riders would essentially pay for the right to not dive.
What is the Potential Impact of Self-Driving Cars?
In addition to the appeal to consumers, governments, and businesses alike, self-driving cars can be expected to have an impact on the societies and economies that adopt them. Costs and overall benefits remain uncertain, but here are 3 areas of impact to keep in mind:
1. Safety: Self-driving vehicles could potentially reduce the number of car crash fatalities by removing the room for human error. Software could possibly be less error-prone than people and have swifter reaction times, but developers still maintain concern over cybersecurity.
2. Impartiality: Driverless cars have the potential to mobilize more people, such as the elderly or disabled. However, it could also displace many workers by reducing the number of driving jobs, and might negatively impact public transportation funding before it takes over the system. To function best, driverless cars or their subscription services would need to be affordable for the majority of people.
3. Environmental: Depending on the availability and convenience of self-driving cars, they could possibly increase the total number of mileage driven each year. If powered by gasoline, this could increase emission levels; if run on electricity, transportation-related emissions might show a great decrease.