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  • Writer's pictureSylvain Tornare

The Autonomous Car, Near Future or Pure Utopia?

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

When will cars no longer have a steering wheel? Elon Musk promised it for 2018. Three years later, fully autonomous cars are still not on the road. From the legal issues to the lack of data, there are many problems.

Carequest Sàrl car broker Switzerland, back shot of a person with an open hand turning the steering wheel of a Volkswagen

Will we still be driving in the future? This is one of the big questions facing the automotive industry today. Despite the existence of many models offering semi-autonomous driving, fully autonomous cars are still not on our roads.

What is an autonomous car?

An autonomous car is simply a car with the ability to drive itself without the involvement of the driver or passengers. The basic principle seems relatively simple. One takes a standard car, equips it with radar and cameras and teaches it the rules of the road via its computer. Artificial intelligence is used to improve the system as it is used, by learning from the situations the car has encountered and improving the database on which the algorithm is based. The basic concept is therefore not ridiculously complex.


There are six levels of autonomy:

  • Level zero: no autonomous driving. The vehicle is controlled by the driver. The majority of today's cars fall into this category. This is also the case for cars with automatic emergency braking systems.

  • Level one: the vehicle is able to take over some driving tasks but its capabilities remain limited. Cars with adaptive cruise control are at level one because the driver remains responsible for most aspects of the driving ( steering and braking).

  • Level two: the vehicle can accelerate, brake and turn on its own without the driver having to interact. Tesla's Autopilot and Cadillac's Super Cruise are in this category.

  • Level three: from this level onwards, it is no longer the human who monitors the vehicle's environment, but the vehicle itself. The car is, therefore, able to take over certain manoeuvres such as overtaking a slower vehicle. However, human intervention may be required when the system is unable to perform a task. The driver must always remain aware.

  • Level four: The difference with level three is relatively small. Here the vehicle is slightly more autonomous, which means that human intervention is only necessary in rare cases. The vehicle is able to react by itself in case of a problem, which is not the case with level three. However, the driver always has the option to override the autopilot. For the time being, this type of car can only be used within predefined geographical areas.

  • Level five: the vehicle no longer needs a human being. Also, drivers and passengers can no longer override the system. The car can therefore undertake all manoeuvres by itself.


Where do manufacturers stand?

The majority of cars currently available on the market are between level zero and level two of autonomy. So we cannot talk about autonomous cars, but rather about driver assistance. It turns out that traditional car manufacturers are not necessarily specialists in this field. Other companies, especially tech companies, are more advanced. Waymo, a firm belonging to Alphabet, is one of the references in this field. NAVYA or Magna are other examples. They are working on level three and four vehicles.


Some car manufacturers have also been working on such a system. Here are some examples:

  • Cadillac offers a level two system called Super Cruise. This uses radar, cameras and GPS data to steer the vehicle. Super Cruise is only available on selected 200,000 km of US highways (geofencing). The technology offered by Cadillac is considered one of the most advanced on the market. Eventually, the Ultra Cruise should replace the Super Cruise and allow the driver to let go of the steering wheel during autonomous driving.

  • Audi had announced a version of the A8 with level three autonomy but the project had to be cancelled for legal reasons as the legal framework is not yet adapted to such driving. Levels one and two are no problem as the driver is held responsible in case of an accident. However, level three, which no longer requires the driver's constant attention, is in a grey area of the law.

  • Volvo has made public a partnership with the Chinese company Baidu. The director of the Swedish make had announced that they were working on autonomous vehicles. However, he planned to skip level three, which he considered dangerous.

  • Tesla seemed to be the most promising manufacturer. However, the American brand has missed its target of bringing autonomous cars to market by 2018. Its Autopilot system is certainly one of the most advanced but remains limited to level two autonomy. Recent crashes have put it under negative publicity.


The problems

The difficulties surrounding autonomous driving are numerous. As the Audi example has shown, legal issues are a real obstacle. The law requires adaptations for autonomous vehicles beyond level two.


Autonomous cars use artificial intelligence, but the database used for this purpose remains limited. It is much more complicated to develop such a system for a car than for a plane or a boat. A car operates in a more dynamic environment involving a greater number of variables (construction sites, weather, traffic, road signs, etc.). The development of an autonomous car requires huge amounts of data and therefore represents a major challenge.


Finally, the autonomous car represents an ethical problem. Is it acceptable for manufacturers to test an undeveloped technology in the presence of other road users who have not consented to participate in such an experiment? Everyone is free to form their own opinion.


What does this mean for the future?

Like the flying car in Back to the Future, the autonomous car may well remain a fantasy, at least for another few decades. The difficulties are numerous, the costs astronomical and the laws time-consuming to modify. Moreover, the idea of the autonomous car is often part of a transition from individual to shared mobility. It also requires major ideological and societal changes. To sum up, the day when we will be able to read the newspaper while driving our autonomous cars still seems a long way off. In the meantime, don't hesitate to contact us to find your dream car!


 

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