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Everything you need to know about self-driving cars

Driverless cars used to be the stuff of science-fiction, whooshing through the futuristic cityscapes of Total Recall and Minority Report. However, recent leaps in AI (artificial intelligence) have seen autonomous technology fitted into everything from Volvos to Teslas. What used to be fantasy is quickly becoming a reality.

What are driverless cars?

Driverless cars are fully autonomous, designed to get you to where you want to go safely and entirely automatically. While this idea is still a while away, most car manufacturers offer self-driving features in one form or another.

Autonomous cars are split into different levels, from 0 up to 5, depending on their self-driving capabilities:

0

Automated systems can warn you of a problem but have no control over the car. An example would be a system that sounds a warning of an impending impact but can take no physical action to help you avoid it.

1

You and one autonomous feature share control of the car. You must be ready to take full control again at any time. Examples include adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance.

2

Multiple features in the car are autonomous and can communicate with each other. For example, a Mercedes S-Class has radar, cameras and sat-nav that communicate with each other to keep the car safely on the road. Nonetheless, your hands must always stay on the steering wheel.

3

Multiple autonomous features can fully control the car and are able to handle some emergency situations. You’re allowed to turn your attention away from the road but might be called upon in emergencies. Audi calls its A8 Level 3 autonomous, although UK law requires you to oversee its actions.

4

The car is fully autonomous but can only operate in a predefined ‘geofenced’ area, such as a city centre. An example would be a fully automated taxi that uses sat-nav and sensors to operate autonomously in a particular area.

5

No driver is needed at all. The car is fully autonomous and can safely operate on any road.

With their Autopilot systems, Teslas (including this Model X) are Level 3 autonomous.

Self-driving cars: Tesla

An example of Level 3 autonomy can be found in the Tesla range, currently comprised of the Tesla Model 3, Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X. These cars all come with an Autopilot system that is standard across the board. This means that each Tesla gets adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping and -changing assistance, automatic steering, parking assistance and automatic emergency braking.

Tesla cars use a mixture of eight surround-view cameras and twelve sensors to view obstacles up to 250m away. On the motorway or a dual carriageway, a Tesla can happily cruise along with no need for you to intervene. However, you will still need to manually take over when you start driving down smaller roads.

Uber and Volvo have partnered up to produce this self-driving XC90

Self-driving cars: Uber

Uber currently has a limited fleet of driverless cars in the USA, which are nearing Level 4 autonomy but operating under strict testing regulations. It was recently revealed that the firm has been spending $20-million a month to continue refining its autonomous cars, with hopes to have driverless services available in 13 American cities by 2022.

Uber has been testing self-driving technology since 2016, gradually implementing a driverless taxi service before stopping last year, after one of their Teslas, in Autopilot mode, struck and killed a pedestrian. Since then, the safety tests have been rigorous and the return of autonomous cars to the firm’s ranks has been very closely monitored. Driverless Ubers are now restricted to stay on slower roads with “less challenging” conditions.

In 2019, Uber and Volvo collaborated and created a self-driving Volvo XC90 SUV. If and when more will be produced and get onto the road remains to be seen.

Driverless cars in the UK

Currently, there has not been a car put into mass production that exceeds Level 3 autonomy. However, the UK government has promised that we will see fully autonomous and driverless vehicles on British roads by 2021. Tests are slated to be underway very soon, yet strict rules have been put in place, saying that any autonomous car must have a human driver at the ready to take over at any time.

The Department for Transport is eager to get driverless cars into circulation in the UK, estimating that they will open up a national market worth £52 billion.

A Tesla driving itself along a highway in America

Are driverless cars safe?

The reason there has been a lot of interest in driverless cars isn’t just because they will take the pain out of driving; they’re also expected to be a lot safer. This is because – according to an overview published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents – human error is a factor in more than 95% of accidents. In other words: remove the human and, almost certainly, you’ll remove the problem.

That said, self-driving technology still comes with its own problems. An example of that can be found with the issues currently being faced by Boeing and its 737 Max. Two of these passenger planes have been involved in fatal accidents which appear to have been caused by autonomous safety features that the pilots weren’t able to override. Self-driving cars could potentially experience similar issues.

Then there’s the moral dilemma of an autonomous car faced with an unavoidable accident. Suddenly, a logical machine has to make a moral decision. Does it go careening into a queue of people standing at a bus stop, killing them but saving your life? Or does it hit the central reservation, saving the people at the bus stop but killing you? Tough questions like these could, in the future, be left to algorithms to decide.

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