Would you get in a self-driving car?

Driverless cars are being developed and tested in the UK as we speak. With driving features developing all the time: from cruise control, to a car parking itself and now, eventually being able to let the car take control – once again technology is changing our daily lives as we know it.

Most people know self-driving cars are on the horizon – but how will we get there and how far away are we from ditching the steering wheel? And most of all, is it the driving future we really want? Let’s start by taking a look at the 5 different levels of automation in driverless cars.

The 5 Autonomy Levels of Driverless Cars

Level 0 Autonomy

Conditional Automation: ‘eyes on’ - A person is in complete control of the car at this level!

Level 1 Autonomy

Diver Assistance: ‘hands on’ – The control over the car is shared between a person and an automated system. This includes features such as adaptive cruise control or parking assistance, but a human is needed for steering etc.

t really is the norm for cars to have cruise control or parking assist features, but a car that’s impressed us with this is the Kia XCeed’s Smart Parking Assist. This actually controls the wheel to help you into and out of parallel parking spaces – all you have to do is control the speed and gears.

Level 2 Autonomy

Partial Automation: ‘hands off’ – The driver gives almost complete control to an automated system including acceleration, braking and steering. However, the driver will still need to be focused and prepared to take back control in any circumstance. This is pretty good for long distance drives because, let’s face it – it would be nice to give your arms holding the wheel a break, although we would still need to pay attention to the road!

Level 3 Autonomy

Conditional Automation: ‘eyes off’ – The car is almost controlling itself and can handle certain responses like emergency braking, but the driver still needs to pay some attention and be prepared to step in when required. The system accelerates, slows down, steers and can even dodge obstacles on a motorway.

The BMW X5 has an Active Driving Assistant system and can steer within one lane, pace the car ahead and also change lanes. It has a number of safety features enabled, including an Emergency Stop Assistant. This is an impressive model filled with tons of technology.

Level 4 Autonomy

High Automation: ‘mind off’ – The driver doesn’t need to pay attention to the road here, however this only works in certain circumstances including certain speed limits or road types. The car would be able to handle complex situations such as roadworks or constructions, without any human help. This pretty much means that in theory you would be able to have a nap at the wheel (although we wouldn’t recommend it)! A driver is still needed to be present, but the car has the authority to pull over if a driver ignores a warning alarm.

While companies in the US, including Uber, are testing self-driving systems, it is looking like Germany may be the first in Europe to develop legislation to commercialise Level 4 cars as early as next summer!

Level 5 Autonomy

Complete Automation: ‘steering wheel optional’ – No driver is needed here at all and the car is completely automated. It doesn’t really matter if the car even has windows at the front, because nobody needs to see?!

When will we see driverless cars on UK roads?

There are already certain levels of driverless cars on UK roads, with expectations for Level 4 cars to be released in the next couple of years and eventually completely driverless cars, potentially on UK roads by 2022.

Lat year a Tesla Model 3 that was equipped with the new Full Self Driving Beta has completed a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles with almost no human intervention! While it did need some human assistance, this journey really highlighted the opportunity and potential of self-driving cars. It is really impressive that the vehicle could navigate both inner city areas and the motorway. There was a couple times that the driver needed to take control over the vehicle to avoid some road debris; to stop at a couple of Superchargers during the trip; and when the vehicle changed lanes at one point which seemed a bit strange. So not a perfect – fully autonomous journey – but pretty close and a massive development in autonomy!

Pros, cons and ethics of autonomous vehicles

Of course, such a complex topic as this generates strong opinions from many different angles.

There certainly appear to be plenty of benefits with driverless cars. A likely reduction in road accidents caused by human error; electric, environmentally friendly vehicles reducing carbon footprint; and of course, accessibility - anyone could ride in a driverless car whether you’re blind or elderly – creating equality! The improvements on our lives are certainly there to see.

While driverless cars will increase safety on roads – would people actually feel safer on motorways with self-driving cars?

One of the biggest concerns with autonomous vehicles is the ethical dilemma of establishing how these cars react to critical situations. In a scenario where a car would crash, how would a self-driving car react? Would it swerve to avoid a crash saving the passenger, but hitting a pedestrian instead – should it swerve? These complex life and death decisions essentially boil down to options taken by an algorithm.

There is no doubt that we will have some form of driverless cars soon on our roads - and they will impact our lives – but what do you think? Would you feel safe in a self-driving car?