Self driving vehicles, or autonomous cars as they are often known, is a type of vehicle that is capable of helping its driver, or itself, to ‘sense’ its environment and react to changes in the road to navigate safely.
The extent to which the car can drive itself autonomously however, varies and is ranked into levels.
Level 0 = Features no automation. This describes your standard automatic or manual car.
Level 1 = Driver assistance is included. These cars are widely available to purchase today and are the cars that allow you to use cruise control and lane assist to assist with fatigue on long journeys.
Level 2 = Vehicles that are partially automated and allow for “hands-off” driving. These will have internal systems that can take care of steering, acceleration and braking automatically. However, the driver must be able to intervene if any part of the system fails.
Many ‘self-driving’ car systems on the market today are considered to be level 2, including Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac (General Motors) Super Cruise systems. Any accident that occurs in a level 2 vehicle is attributed to human error as the human in the driver’s seat is supposed to be watching the road at all times.
Level 3 = Conditional Automation. Vehicles operating with level 3 automation have “environmental detection” capabilities, meaning they can make informed decisions for themselves, such as accelerating past another slow-moving vehicle.
The only driverless car on the market today that is certified to be of a level 3 standard is the Legend sedan by Honda. When the Level 3 Traffic Jam Pilot is activated in the system, a driver can watch movies or use the navigation on the screen, helping to mitigate fatigue and stress when driving in a traffic jam. Audi also unveiled its A8 sedan with level 3 technology in 2017 but regulatory hurdles have prevented it from being widely introduced.
Level 4 = High Automation. Level 4 is considered to be fully autonomous driving, with the car able to handle the majority of driving situations independently. At level 4 there is no requirement that a human driver must be available but if they wanted to they could still request control of the car.
There are plenty of companies currently experimenting with level 4 autonomous technology, including Waymo and Daimler. Nonetheless, these trials have been largely limited to very narrow and selective public roadway trials.
Level 5 = Full Automation. In a level 5 driverless car there would be the removal of driving controls as human intervention would be unnecessary. This would include the steering wheel and braking pedals. This would free up space inside the car, fundamentally transforming interior car design as we know it. To work, the owner of the vehicle would simply need to input their destination, like with GPS, and the car would be able to navigate them there seamlessly.
As level 5 vehicles operate without a driver, it is unlikely that the driver would be liable should an accident occur. In this case, driver liability will most likely turn into product liability with the company who supplied the automation system and/or its components being at fault for the crash.
Many hope that driverless cars that are level 4 or 5, will bring forth mobility-for-all, enabling those that are mobility disadvantaged or mobility marginally to finally have ready access to riding in cars.
Once we reach a certain threshold of self-driving vehicles on the road, accident rates are also likely to decrease as the number of accidents that occur as a result of human error will be limited.
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