The idea of autonomous vehicles has captured many people’s imagination: They would love to have a digital chauffeur so they could truly multitask as they move about.
Hold that thought while you do a web search on the term “driving while sleeping.” Your search will return numerous news articles and even videos. So, it’s understandable that many consumers think that autonomous vehicles (AVs) are already here — and will be everywhere soon.
The names of features on current car models don’t help: for example “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving Capability,” are, to quote the carmaker’s manual, “…intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.”
In other words, the cars in the “driving while sleeping” articles have Level 3 Vehicle Autonomy: limited self-driving under less complex environments, such as highways. They are not Level 4 (full self-driving under certain conditions) or Level 5 (full self-driving under all conditions: the vehicle has no steering wheel).
The technical challenges for full self-driving Level 5 vehicles are well-known. The biggest challenge is the ability to accurately see all relevant surroundings and obstacles — even under adverse weather or road conditions — and reacting safely.
But there are also major societal/regulatory challenges, like defining “safe and reasonable reactions.” Amnon Shashua, the CEO of Mobileye
, notes that driverless cars have to make a trade-off between safety and usefulness: “I can be completely safe if I don’t drive or if I drive very slowly,” he says, “but then I’m not useful, and society will not want those vehicles on the road.”
Nonetheless, autonomous vehicles are slowly rolling out, but not in the ways that consumers may think. Level 4 or 5 vehicles are currently expensive — their economics can most readily be justified if the AVs replace the most expensive part of driving: professional drivers.
So Waymo is running driverless local people shuttles and delivery vans
in limited areas (“geo-fenced”) in Arizona, which is typically free of adverse weather. Volkswagen Group, Intel’s Mobileye, and Champion Motors have announced plans to commercialize Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) with self-driving electric vehicles (“robo-taxis”) in Israel by 2022
. Israel (also a sunny climate) is a small country, making creating the highly detailed maps required by AVs more manageable.
What will consumers see (and really appreciate) in vehicle autonomy in the next 5 years? Many more drivers will experience Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, which are Vehicle Autonomy Levels 1 and 2 features, such as automatic emergency braking, “smart” cruise control, and lane keeping assist. As Amnon Shashua of Mobileye points out, “Some safety regulators around the world have already started to include Level 1 and Level 2 technology as a prerequisite for a vehicle to achieve a 4- or 5-star safety rating
But no one can say with any certainty when the ultimate in vehicle autonomy, Level 5, will become widely available for robo-taxis and, further down the road, for personal luxury cars.