Self-Driving Cars in 2021 and What It Means for Consumers

Jul 27, 2021
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Although one may not realize it from the headlines on auto innovations popping up across newsfeeds, owning a “driverless ” car that can operate in any situation and on all public roads with no human oversight is not necessarily an imminent reality for consumers. With current engineering, regulatory and insurance hurdles, it may still be years before vehicles that are fully self-driving are mass produced and available for purchase.

On the other hand, automakers and tech companies have invested billions of dollars in AI and machine learning that have produced new technological capabilities along the evolutionary path to fully autonomous cars. Broadly known as advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), these innovations can provide an enhanced level of safety on the road, and are making the driving experience easier, more comfortable and less stressful. In 2021, many of these features even come standard in new and late-model vehicles, and at affordable price points. Below, we’re highlighting some of these systems now available, and providing a brief overview on how “self-driving” vehicles are progressing:

The Six Levels of Automation

SAE International, formerly named the Society of Automotive Engineers, defines the extent to which a car is self-driving according to six levels of autonomy ranging from 0 to 5. This standard is now used by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Steven Loveday from Carfax provides helpful clarification on SAE’s classification system in his article “Self-Driving Cars: What Can You Buy Today?”.  At the two extremes, Level 0 describes a vehicle that is piloted by a human without any automation (e.g., no cruise control), and Level 5 means full automation in all conditions without human intervention.

Most cars on the road in 2021 are actually still at Level 0 in terms of the SAE guidelines. But as Roadshow explains, any model of car with at least one advanced driver-assistance feature would meet the requirement for Level 1. For example, a car with adaptive cruise control or lane-keep technology would be a Level 1 vehicle, at minimum. Adaptive cruise control (ACC) uses sensors and radar to help maintain a safe distance from the car ahead. The system works similarly to regular cruise control with the driver setting the maximum speed. The difference is that ACC also tracks the car in front of you and adjusts your car’s speed accordingly. More advanced versions of adaptive cruise control also have a stop-and-go function that allows for a smoother ride in dense traffic. They can bring the vehicle to a full stop, and then automatically resume acceleration when traffic moves again.

Many new and recent models by Toyota and Honda fit the criteria for Level 1 automation, as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist are now both standard in vehicles like the Accord, Corolla, CR-V, Pilot, Rav4 and Insight. Carfax also cites Ford, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Mazda and Subaru as auto brands that offer these types of technologies. Automakers often bundle adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assist, as well as other advanced safety features.

As JD Power reports, The Honda Sensing® safety package became standard in all Honda models in 2021 except for the base trim level of the HR-V small crossover SUV. Honda Sensing features adaptive cruise control, a collision mitigation braking system, lane-departure warning, a road departure mitigation system and lane centering assistance. Certain models also offer adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow, allowing for stop-and-go capability in heavy traffic. In 2022, the Sensing suite of safety technologies will be standard across the full lineup of Honda vehicles.

Autotrader asserts that Toyota is leading the way in offering advanced driver safety features on entry-level vehicles — refining and enhancing its ADAS technologies as it redesigns its vehicles. Along with the common ADAS technologies, new features offered in its Safety Sense 2.0 include daytime bicyclist detection, nighttime pedestrian detection, road edge detection with its lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist system, lane-centering assist, and road sign recognition.

According to AutoPilot Review, mainstream automakers in 2021 are generally focused on Level 2 autonomy  —  in which the vehicle can control the steering, acceleration and braking, but the driver must monitor the vehicle and be ready to retake control at any time. Examples of systems with these “pilot assist” or “autopilot” functions include General Motors Super Cruise, Mercedes-Benz Distronic Plus, Nissan ProPilot Assist and Tesla Autopilot. As AutoPilot Review explains, most cars with autopilot features also offer the core ADAS safety features, such as automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and some form of lane-keeping technology.

Pilot assist systems vary in function depending on the manufacturer. For instance, Carfax tell us that Audi offers piloting and automatic parking, but not hands-free operation, as regulatory issues proved too problematic for its hands-free Traffic Jam Pilot technology on its A8. However, BMW offers an automatic parking feature as well as a Driver Assistance Plus Package with Traffic Jam assist that allows hands-free operation in some cases.

As Carfax explains, commercially sold vehicles are not yet equipped with the technology that allows consumers to disengage from driving functions in order to read, sleep, or even perform a quick task like posting to a social media account. Drivers should be alert and prepared to intervene at any time (as of this writing). Carfax further specifies that your eyes must be on the road, your foot must remain on or near the brake pedal, and your hands must remain on the steering wheel or ready to take the wheel immediately.

Making the Leap to Level 3 Autonomy and Beyond

There is a tremendous jump in technical complexity between Level 2 and Level 3 automation, far greater than that between Level 1 and Level 2. But as Synopsys puts it in “The 6 Levels of Vehicle Autonomy Explained,” the difference between Level 2 and 3  is “subtle if not negligible from a human perspective.” In what is described as conditional automation, a Level 3 vehicle can take full control of primary driving functions under certain conditions. At this stage, vehicles have “environmental detection” capabilities which allows them to make informed decisions, such as accelerating to pass a slower vehicle. However, the driver must remain vigilant and ready to take control back.

According to Roadshow, Google piloted an experimental program for Level 3 autonomy in 2012, and discovered that people’s response time for regaining control of the vehicle was too slow to take the system to market. After many years of research and development, Tesla developed an advanced hardware package and software updates for its Autopilot system that was first introduced in 2014.

Carfax reports that the hardware package contains 8 external cameras, a radar, 12 ultrasonic sensors and a powerful onboard computer with a self-driving chip. Tesla has asserted that the hardware, along with additional software updates, will make the car capable of full self-driving in the future. The complete package will provide for enhanced navigation, automatic lane change, automatic parallel and perpendicular parking, and the ability to have your car pick you up in a parking lot.

Automotive Autonomy Within a Limited Geographic Range

In what’s referred to as geofencing, Waymo has been testing a fleet of driverless Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in a 100-square-mile service area in Phoenix. But they’re not the only company testing vehicles that operate under full autonomy in a closed geographic range. For instance, General Motors and Cruise Automation are testing a fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Bolt EVs on public roads in downtown San Francisco. As Carfax tells us, GM has also partnered with Honda to produce a shared autonomous multi-passenger shuttle that they plan to eventually bring to market as a production vehicle.

The Outlook in Summer 2021

There have been major strides forward in the development of vehicle automation in recent years. However, the timeframe for the mass production of fully self-driving vehicles that can perform anywhere and under all conditions, without the monitoring or intervention of a human driver, is still uncertain.

With the inexhaustible number of situations that can materialize on the road, self-driving vehicles must undergo an enormous number (i.e., millions or billions) of tests, simulations and incidents to be taught to deal effectively with problems that humans face when driving. As Steven Loveday points out, human drivers have the ability to assess individual situations and to make judgement calls, unlike computers. We also have the edge over artificial intelligence when it comes to communication methods like eye contact and gestures.

Given these limitations, it’s understandable that developing a self-driving computer to acquire the intelligence needed to operate with full autonomy would be a complex, painstaking and lengthy process, with many expected setbacks and risks. At the same time, surveys from organizations including AAA have shown that people are far more interested in advanced vehicle safety features than they are in the concept of a self-driving car. But with the widespread availability and popularity of advanced driver-assistance systems focused on safety, it could be argued that automakers have already demonstrated significant achievements that benefit consumers on the road to developing full-autonomation.

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