Like it or not, they’re coming. Automakers around the world are developing them at a furious pace. Legislators around the world are scrambling to make laws for them. And yet, self-driving cars aren’t here yet — well, at least not completely. But with each passing year, the newest cars come even closer to driving themselves.
BMWs can park themselves, Teslas can change lanes, and Toyotas can speed up and slow down with the flow of traffic. What does it all mean? And when are cars truly going to drive themselves? According to Ford, they’ll be here by 2021. Most other automakers agree we’ll be chauffeured around by our rides by 2030 at the latest. Before that time comes, here’s a quick and easy primer on the degrees of automotive autonomy, where we are, and where we’re headed.
Level 0: Driver control
Let’s be honest: Drivers have been fumbling toward autonomous cars for almost as long as cars have existed. In the 1930s, cars with automatic transmissions were advertised as cars that shifted for you. Power brakes and steering in the 1950s were pitched the same way. Cruise control was initially marketed as “auto-pilot” by Chrysler in the 1950s, the same name used by Tesla for its semi-autonomous system today.
But all of these advances are still at Level 0. For each and every one of them, a human needs to be behind the wheel to operate them.
Level 1: Driver assistance
This encompasses most modern cars with radar-based cruise control. A car may be able to control its speed or steer, but it can’t do both at once. As advanced as these features seem, the driver is still in full control over the car. This technology might be a load off for drivers, but they still have to drive.
Level 2: Some autonomy
Autonomous driving might seem like it’s just around the corner, but as of 2017 this is where our most advanced cars are. Impressive self-driving systems from Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, and Cadillac still fall in the comparatively lowly Level 2 category. Cars here can steer and control their own speed, but drivers are still the boss. Tesla’s Autopilot and Mercedes’ active programs can speed up, slow down, change lanes, keep up with traffic, and even stop themselves. But they aren’t available in all situations and still require the driver to keep at least one hand on the wheel at all times. If they don’t, the systems will shut off after about 10 seconds.
Level 3: Conditional autonomy
As of now, there’s only one vehicle available that can boast Level 3 autonomy, and that’s the 2018 Audi A8. Automakers, including Ford and Volvo, have indicated that they won’t offer Level 3 cars for one big reason: They’re too much responsibility for the driver. Cars at this level can drive themselves in virtually all situations with very little driver input. But “virtually” is the key word here. If a car can’t handle a situation, it would have the driver step in. If you haven’t been paying attention and suddenly need to take the wheel of a speeding car in a difficult situation, we can imagine that you might not be at the ready. As a result, Audi might be the only major automaker to offer a Level 3 car. Other automakers might keep theirs in their engineering departments.
Level 4: High autonomy
This is what so many automakers are scrambling toward: Level 4 autonomy. In this designation, cars may still have familiar controls (or some version of them), but they really won’t be necessary. Level 4 cars will be able to drive and stop themselves in all conditions, and they will be advanced enough to handle any hazard — probably better than drivers could. Ford and Volvo have both announced they will be offering Level 4 cars in the next five years.
Level 5: Complete autonomy
This is what the future will look like. In this scenario, there’s no need for a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, or gear selector. Everything, from stopping and starting to highway cruising, will be controlled by your car with no input from you other than typing in a destination in the GPS system. Virtually every major automaker’s concept cars from the past few years previews this type of technology.
In the not-too-distant future, driveable cars might be relegated to enthusiasts. For the rest of the world, the new normal will be self-driving cars.
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