What Is An Autonomous Vehicle?

What Is An Autonomous Vehicle?

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Alison Smith

As technology continues to evolve, so does the automobile industry. One particular area that is quickly developing is driverless car technology and the creation of autonomous vehicles. So, what is an autonomous vehicle? An autonomous vehicle is an automobile that is engineered to drive without human interaction. While a fully autonomous vehicle requires no assistance from a human operator, there are several stages of self-driving cars.

Google Self-Driving Car

Autonomous Vehicle Levels

In 2014, The Society of Automotive Engineers created a scale in order to rate the level of automation for self-driving vehicles. With six different levels, the scale describes the stages of automation in driverless cars. Though the overall definition of an autonomous vehicle can vary, these widely-accepted classifications are used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to distinguish the varying degrees of Automated Driving Systems (ADS). Here is the scale, ranging from no automation to full automation. Despite common consumer misconceptions, we are still a long way off from having fully-autonomous (Level 5) vehicles on the road. The current top dogs in the industry, such as Tesla's Autopilot, GM's Super Cruise, and the advanced versions of Ford's Co-Pilot360, still only offer Level 2 automation for the time being.

  • Level 0: No Automation — Zero autonomy, the driver is in full control.
  • Level 1: Driver Assistance — Very little autonomy, the driver is mainly in control, but the vehicle could control steering or acceleration.
  • Level 2: Partial Automation — Partial autonomy, the vehicle can now control steering, braking, and acceleration, but the driver must stay aware and engaged.
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation — Almost full autonomy, the vehicle can control most functions, but the driver needs to be available to operate the car if alerted.
  • Level 4: High Automation — Full autonomy but only under certain conditions, the driver may need to take control depending on the situation.
  • Level 5: Full Automation — Full autonomy under all conditions, the driver does not need to be involved in any interactions.

Uber Self-Driving Car Ford

Companies Developing Autonomous Vehicles

There isn’t a true full autonomous vehicle on the market yet, but there are many companies that are working diligently in order to develop a self-driving car capable of operating independently. In fact, there are already several autonomous vehicles already on the streets. Ford even teamed up with Domino’s to offer automated pizza delivery. Along with Ford being a major developer working toward producing a fully autonomous vehicle, there are numerous other companies investing time and money into the technology including General Motors, Daimler, Volkswagen, BMW, Tesla, Toyota, NVIDIA, and Google’s Waymo. Ride-hailing applications Uber and Lyft have even been working directly with these enterprises to establish passenger-carrying autonomous vehicles.

How Do Autonomous Vehicles Work?

General Motors Self-Driving Vehicle

Autonomous vehicles use a variety of different technologies in order to process massive amounts of constantly changing information. Weather conditions, traffic detours, roadwork, and visibility are all factors that a self-driving vehicle has to take into consideration when in motion. Not to mention, autonomous vehicles still have to account for the other drivers on the road, their potential routes, and prospective actions they might take. By using GPS, cameras, sensors, lasers, radar, and software, autonomous vehicles are able to determine their surroundings and anticipate any potential changes in their environment.

While most of us frequently utilize GPS and navigation systems, they are essential in the context of autonomous vehicles. Because a self-driving car has to consider other obstacles on the road, staying in the proper lane, maintaining the correct speed, and traveling to the desired destination, the GPS has to be extremely precise. Knowing exactly where the vehicle is positioned on the road is important in order to avoid contact with other cars, sidewalks, medians, and anything that could be hazardous. Cameras help the vehicle get a clearer picture of the environment, while sensors, lasers, and radar are able to provide more specific information such as distance or speed. Software and programming help all of these components work together cohesively so the autonomous vehicle can safely drive on the road.

Of course, artificial intelligence is also a big aspect of self-driving cars as they need to be able to react quickly and accurately, perhaps even more so than a human driver. While humans are still needed to monitor or operate autonomous vehicles currently, the future hope is that cars will be able to drive themselves with total independence. As technology continues to evolve, companies are getting closer and closer to creating a fully autonomous vehicle. It might not be tomorrow or five years from now, but progress is continually being made. Will the role of the driver soon be nonexistent? Only time will tell.

Sources: Where Are Self-Driving Cars Taking Us?, Union of Concerned Scientists | Self-Driving Cars Could Help Save the Environment-Or Ruin It. It Depends on Us, Time | Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles PDF Download, NHTSA | Parking Lots: Why Autonomous Cars Could Save Acres of Space, New Atlas

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