Driving assistance, autonomous driving systems, 100% autonomous cars... What is behind these terms and what are the different autonomous dri...
Driving assistance, autonomous driving systems, 100% autonomous cars... What is behind these terms and what are the different autonomous driving Levels?
Would you be willing to let your car manage everything for you?
The subject of the autonomous car has been occupying car manufacturers and the media a lot in recent months. The digital technologies embedded in the car will make the product a connected object, an infotainment platform that in the future will simplify the user's life. By placing the customer experience at the heart of their various strategies (connected, autonomous, electrified cars, services), carmakers want to adapt to the new consumption needs of customers.
Today, practically all mobility players, and many more, have focused on autonomous vehicles. Tesla, the PSA group, Renault, Google Waymo, Mercedes, Uber, Volvo... all are working on car autonomy, even if some carmakers have had to revise their roadmap recently and redirect funds for research and investment in this area to other sectors, such as energy transition.
What do autonomous driving Levels really mean?
When we talk about autonomous driving, we tend to think it's all or nothing, and many manufacturers claim to offer autonomous cars. However, there are different autonomous driving levels.
Admittedly, there is no official classification of current and future models. But the players are basing themselves on a grid developed in 2014 by SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers.
It is at the origin of the classification into six categories, making it possible to define what human drivers and/or autonomous systems can and cannot do.
Legislation has never been very clear about autonomous vehicles. There was often confusion between autopilot and autonomous piloting. Autopilot is still a very advanced driver assistance system, but it cannot do without a human driver. The opposite is true of autonomous driving, which must be able to do without a human presence.
Defining what human drivers and autonomous systems can and cannot do
In 2014, SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) International, a professional organization of scientists and engineers, has proposed a grid for understanding and classifying autonomous vehicles. This grid is therefore the basis for the classification into categories, defining what human drivers and autonomous systems can and cannot do.
It also serves as a reference for manufacturers and governments who regularly address the various issues related to future mobility, sometimes directly related to autonomous systems. The International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers has also defined a European scale with six levels of autonomy for vehicles, a system similar to the one designed by the SAE.
In order to be able to understand the subject, I suggest that you decipher the different SAE levels, i.e. autonomous driving levels, and why it is important to know them before choosing your next autonomous car.
Level 0: no autonomy or assistance
As its name suggests, it is the zero level of autonomy and assistance. Understand that all driving is done by the human driver, not assisted by the vehicle. It is therefore a vehicle without driving assistance. Here, there is no cruise control, no automatic emergency braking or even lane keeping assistance.
In this category, all the visual aids of the last century are present: if your car is able to tell you that you are running out of petrol or engine oil, it is a warning of a danger but not a driving aid.
Level 1: driver assistance, eyes on-hands on
This is generally what we find on the majority of our cars today. The driver is obviously present 100% of the time and the car is not supposed to make any decision "alone". The driver can have access to assistance which concerns either longitudinal control (speed and distance from preceding vehicles) or lateral control of the vehicle (following white lines) but not both at the same time. Level 1 equipment includes: cruise control, line-crossing radar, automatic emergency braking, collision warning, power steering.
Level 2: partial automation, eyes on-hands off
This is the level that tends to become more democratic in all our modern cars. Even if the legislator does not allow it, which is why cars regularly tell you to put your hands on the steering wheel when you don't, you can theoretically let go of the controls for a few seconds and let the car do the work. Of course, the driver must keep an eye on his environment so that he can quickly regain control if a problem occurs.
In certain situations, the driver can delegate both longitudinal and lateral control of the vehicle to the system, however, the driver remains responsible for supervision.
It is up to the driver to keep an eye on the system at all times and monitor the vehicle environment and regain full control if necessary.
Aids such as adaptive cruise control or lane keeping fall into this category, as well as their combination. The high-end models of some manufacturers now incorporate these technologies, such as the Audi e-tron Sportback and the Nissane Leaf, which know how to move by themselves, but are not aware of their entire environment. Other functions include the famous "Park Assist", now present on many vehicles, which allows the car to park by itself.
Level 3: conditional autonomy, eyes off-hands off
From this level, vehicles are able to see their driving environment and therefore act accordingly. Level 3 indicates that the driver must be able to regain control of the vehicle at all times, but that the vehicle is fully autonomous under certain driving conditions.
This means that driving can be fully delegated to the machine but only under pre-defined conditions, for example on motorways.
Today, some production cars oscillate between levels 2 and 3. This is notably the case of Tesla, which until a few years ago offered a very convincing automatic driving system, but today unfortunately constrained by the legislator's standards that force the brand to revise its copy. Nevertheless, at Tesla, the car uses cameras and radars to understand its environment and apprehend the dangers, overtake alone when the indicator is on, maintain the course, decelerate if necessary and keep a safe distance. This level should allow it to do all this in complete autonomy, which is why it is still today between level 2 and 3, not filling all the boxes of level 3.
Level 4: high autonomy, eyes off-hands off-mind off
The vehicle is driven completely autonomously, i.e. without even the necessary presence of a driver on board. The system bears responsibility for all the actions it will carry out, in particular concerning maneuvers or its decisions according to the evolution of the environment.
From this level, no assistance from the "driver" is required. However, total autonomy is limited to predefined conditions: a specific geographical area, for example a motorway or a car park with which the vehicle is compatible, weather conditions (snowy weather, fog-free weather, etc.).
When these criteria are met, the driver is no longer responsible for driving, which he delegates to the system in full. However, he is still obliged to resume driving when the vehicle leaves this automated driving zone. In contrast to level 3, if the driver fails to react, the vehicle must be able to exit on its own or stop on a motorway apron.
Level 5: complete high autonomy, driverless
Here, there is no more human intervention or road conditions: the vehicle is 100% autonomous. The vehicle can perform absolutely all driving tasks and is not subject to any human intervention. Whether it is on the motorway or in the city centre, it is capable of driving in total autonomy. All the big companies are working on this, like Google for example and its famous Google Car, or Uber. There is not even a steering wheel anymore, it is the car that makes all the right decisions without human intervention. If it wishes, it can even ignore a human order if artificial intelligence considers it dangerous.
"Drivers will be freed from the obligation to drive and will be able to focus their attention on other activities: work, relaxation, communication, entertainment, and so on. And this newly liberated time will blur the boundaries between home, work and leisure, arousing the interest of a large number of players," David Weill, Vice President Strategy of Faurecia Interiors.
Human driving becomes a pleasure option, with vehicle autonomy as the norm. Control elements such as the steering wheel or pedals are no longer necessary.
When will 100% autonomous cars be available?
Certainly not for tomorrow, as we read all over the place a few years ago. While manufacturers are generally well advanced in this respect, it is the legislator who will have the last word. There are still many parameters to be taken into account and the range of a vehicle depends not only on the vehicle itself, but also on the environment around it. For example, cities will also have to be connected in order to smooth traffic flow or to send information to autonomous vehicles.
We have also recently noted a small drop in interest from car manufacturers regarding vehicle autonomy, especially since some short-term issues are more important, such as those related to the energy transition. The budget dedicated to research and development for autonomous cars has had to be cut in some cases and transferred to other sectors, such as electric power trains or batteries.
Some manufacturers are also delegating these activities to companies specializing in new technologies. This is the case of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, which has teamed up with Waymo, a company owned by Google, to assess market opportunities and to work together to provide a commercial, legal and regulatory framework for the autonomous automobile.
While the term "autonomous driving" is indeed confusing, what we traditionally confuse with autopilot (which is a very advanced driving assistance) is the range of a vehicle.
An autonomous car can only claim this title if, indeed, it can completely do without a human driver.
However, this level of autonomy represents an enormous degree of constraint. And when it comes to safety, public expectations are very high, with a near-zero tolerance for injury or death caused by these machines.
According to John Krafcik, head of Waymo, the autonomous car division at Alphabet (Google's parent company), it will be decades before these cars can hit the roads. In any case, they may still need a driver.
For engineers, the autonomous car is probably the most difficult problem facing humanity.
In the world of the future, your car may be the continuation of your home and office. You will no longer drive, you will have time to do what you need or want to do...