If you follow our social media feeds you may have noticed recently, the occasional post on autonomous vehicles. Now it may not be a topic that’s popular with many driving enthusiasts, but autonomous vehicles are an inevitable part of our future and the reality is they’re not too far off either. Buy a new car today and it will already be packed with advanced technology that would have seemed unlikely even 10 years ago. A small army of cameras and radars monitor hazards ahead and Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) systems can apply the brakes in case of a potential crash. Lane departure technology keeps motorists on track if their attention starts to wane, adaptive cruise control will keep your vehicle a safe distance from the one in front and don’t forget parking assist. The youth of today will never know the pressure of having to complete a parallel park in their driving test.
Of course, all of these new driver aids still don’t add up to fully autonomous vehicles and it’s likely to be a few years yet before we start seeing these in our showrooms. The Society of Automotive Engineers however, has helpfully created a system of classification for autonomous vehicles to help the motoring industry and people like you and me understand the roadmap (excuse the pun) ahead for the industry and I thought it would be useful to share this with you below. Vehicle autonomy falls into the following 5 categories.
Level 0: This is where many of the cars available today are as they lack any autonomous driving functions. The driver is responsible for all steering, acceleration, and braking, even if the vehicle is equipped with forward collision warning, cruise control, or lane departure warning.
Level 1: Vehicles in this category have one or more systems that can intervene to brake, steer, or accelerate the car, but the systems do not work in tandem with one another. Examples of Level 1 features include adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and lane keeping assist.
Level 2: At this level autonomous vehicles can simultaneously control steering and speed at the same time, without driver intervention for short periods. They cannot perform autonomously under all conditions. The driver is required to stay attentive and be able to regain control of the car at any time. This level of autonomy is already available in some vehicles and you can expect it to spread into more models in 2018.
Level 3: Now we’re getting towards the sharper end of the spectrum. Vehicles at this level have full autonomous functions in all driving conditions but need to shift control back to the driver if they are unable to perform. This level is seen as the first at which a driver can theoretically take his or her eyes off the road to perform other tasks (if they dare).
Level 4: This is what is meant by “fully autonomous.” Level 4 vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” However, it’s important to note that this is limited to the “operational design domain (ODD)” of the vehicle meaning it does not cover every driving scenario. It is estimated that this level of autonomy will be available in cars from 2021. That’s just 3 years from now.
Level 5: It is anticipated that level 5 autonomy will be available in vehicles from around 2025. At this point a car will be able to drive itself fully from door to door without a driver needing to touch the wheel. This will include driving on motorways, city environments that feature traffic lights, junctions, roundabouts and even off road. Cars will be connected wirelessly to each other and communicate with the road infrastructure to make decisions on traffic and journey times. It’s likely a steering wheel will still be present. Beyond 2025 however, it’s feasible we could see the first vehicle with no option for a driver to take control at all and when that happens, you can expect car design as we know it to change beyond recognition.
So where does that leave the driving enthusiasts and motoring professionals like you and me? Well, I don’t think there’s a need to hang up the driving gloves just yet. Whilst the technology might be available sooner than we realise, the real barrier to progress will be public perception and that may take some time to change. I’m confident too that even when driving for the majority becomes a thing of the past, there will always be people like you and me keeping the skill alive, sharing our passion and helping a new generation catch the driving bug.