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Self-driving cars: A level-by-level explainer of the road to autonomy

Self-driving cars: A level-by-level explainer of the road to autonomy


Self-driving cars have started to wear out their welcome, and they aren’t even here yet. Much of the promise and disappointment around them centers on Level 4, one of six levels of technology that allow cars to operate without our input to some degree.

I largely agree with former Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt’s view that “it’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.” In terms of sheer technical elegance, we never should have been at the controls in the first place. 

Imagine we hadn’t yet invented automobiles. Suppose I Iaid out a vision for using 3,300 pound machines to typically transport just our 175-pound selves in a process requiring we pay rapt attention to the use of a steering wheel and pedals to navigate roads composed of asphalt, brightly colored suggestions and poorly guided machines like ours which, even after years of refinement, killed 36,000 Americans each year. You’d send me packing. 

History aside, vehicles driven by us make sense in only a minority of the cases where it happens. And all of this is coming from a guy who loves driving cars, but knows he can’t ultimately justify it. Except that we’ve had no choice.

Which brings me to Level 4, which promises to offer such a choice. Of the six levels of vehicular autonomy, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, it’s the one that promises to substantially relieve humans of the need to drive in the foreseeable future. A Level 4 car may not have a steering wheel or pedals, though elimination of them isn’t part of its definition. And Level 4 is conditional, which is to say it works when it can work, as opposed to Level 5, which must work all the time for every trip and seems barely achievable in my lifetime.

SAE levels of driving automation

Society of Automotive Engineers

One of the smartest carmakers out there, Toyota, has an interesting take on all this. It embraces both Level 3 and Level 4, rather than seeing the latter as a necessary graduation from the former. Toyota’s concept of “guardian” describes a Level 3 car that acts as an exoskeleton of driver assists, shaping our human driving behavior and saving us from most of the dumb things we do behind the wheel. Their “chauffeur” concept is essentially Level 4 autonomy. Both are valuable concepts that are offered as choices rather than assuming we all abandon manual driving as soon as technically possible. Level 3 “guardian” technology would have a long and vital role taking the venom and tedium out of driving, though Level 4 is the more technically admirable in a big picture sense.

Check out the video as I try to make clear distinctions about each level of self-driving and put them in context against the current state of technology. You might be surprised to learn how many of the building blocks of future “driving” you have in your current car.



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