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Smart cars are dumber than you think, but there’s a plan to make them better

You can’t read much about new cars without hearing about the impending revolution in autonomous driving. But before we jump into that brave new world, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In fact, the scale of the work yet to do absolutely overwhelms the hype that’s going around.

Campaign promises

Earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Volkswagen showed a concept called I.D., a vehicle built on the German automaker’s Modular Electric Drive platform. One of the most talked-about features of the VW I.D. is that the steering wheel retracts into the dashboard when the car is in autonomous mode. VW executives projected a “fully autonomous” car based on the Modular Electric Drive platform for sale by 2025, and a semi-autonomous car by 2020. However, the executives did not offer any particular details about what they really meant by “fully autonomous” or “semi-autonomous.”

In contrast to VW’s boldness, Toyota’s press conference was more cautious about such promises. Toyota engineers stressed that under current definitions, autonomous cars are rated at six progressive levels of capability. They stated that attaining the highest levels of self-driving operation is a difficult technical challenge, while lower levels are comparatively easy. That distinction is really where the rubber meets the road, so we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the six degrees of autonomous driving.

What is J3016, and why do you care?

The Society of Automotive Engineers is an international group of over 128,000 automotive and aerospace industry professionals who take on a lot of the boring, basic tasks that are absolutely critical to developing just about everything. The SAE is why a 10-millimeter bolt in Japan is the same size as one made in Germany or the United States: SAE develops open standards that everyone can use.

When any automaker promises to give you a self-driving automobile, the first question should always be, at what level?

SAE has developed some good common-sense standards that define progressive levels of self-driving capability for cars. That set of standards is called, “Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems” or just J3016 for short.

What you care about is not the name of the paper, however, but what the levels of autonomy mean for your next car. SAE has placed specific technical capabilities at each level of autonomy. When any automaker promises to give you a self-driving automobile, the first question should always be, at what level?

Level Zero, One or Two

The SAE breaks down the task of driving into two parts: monitoring the driving environment and performance of dynamic driving tasks. That’s pretty self-explanatory. You monitor the environment with your eyes and sometimes your ears, and you perform driving tasks with your hands and feet. The level of autonomy a car has is simply how much of that work the car can do for you. In the SAE definition, levels zero, one, and two are where the human driver is still responsible for monitoring the driving environment.

Level Zero is what most people have in their cars today. At Level Zero, your car is not in any way autonomous. If you fail to monitor the environment or you let go of the steering wheel, you’re almost certainly going to crash. The SAE says that things like lane departure or forward collision warnings are still Level Zero, because you have to respond to them to change what the car is doing.

At Level One, you get some familiar features. The SAE publication talks about “a driver assistance system of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment.” So, that means things like lane departure control that will nudge the car back into the lane, or adaptive cruise control that will change speeds to maintain the car’s position in traffic. We have these features today, but they’re still comparatively rare.

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Level Two is a little more automated – where Level One applies to either of steering or acceleration/deceleration, in Level Two you have to include both controls at once. The standard specifies “execution by one or more driver assistance systems of both steering and acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment.” So, that would mean a system that could both steer and brake to follow traffic. Some of the most advanced adaptive cruise control systems on the market today can do that, under limited circumstances.

Levels Three, Four, and Five

So, where we are today is that the most advanced cars for sale to the public are working at autonomy Level Two. They can follow a curve in the road and maintain speed and following distance, and even apply the brakes in an emergency, but that still leaves all other driving decisions up to the primate in the driver’s seat.

When you get into Level Three, Four, or Five, the level of technical difficulty goes up rapidly. At Level Three, the standard specifies that an automated driving system will handle “all aspects of the dynamic driving task with the expectation that the human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene.” That’s about where the Uber and Google pilot programs are right now. It’s also where the law is likely to hold up development for some time, by requiring a licensed driver to take control if necessary.

Level Five means the car is as smart as you, as quick as you, and will make decisions at least as well as you. You’re a passenger at that point.

At Level Four, there is no requirement to have the driver intervene in the event of danger. The standard states, “performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately.” That means the car has to be able to handle everything from a kid running out in front of the car to someone running a red light in front of you. But even at Level Four, your car still has a steering wheel and control pedals – you could respond to the warning, but the human driver is now a secondary system.

Finally at Level Five, we really get into a fully self-driving car. The specification for Level 5 autonomy is “full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver.” Simply put, it means the car is as smart as you, and at least as quick as you, and will make decisions at least as well as you. You’re a passenger at that point.

What you can expect

There’s no doubt that increasingly autonomous cars are coming, and soon. If an automaker promises a Level Three or Level Four semi-autonomous car by 2020, it’s likely that they have it working right now. In an automaker’s world, three years is practically tomorrow.

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Yet as we’ve shown, there are some big jumps necessary to get up to Level Five, and not the least of those is getting political support for taking human drivers out of the loop. Whether we really see that kind of technology by 2025 is still up in the air, and if we do see it, we’ll still have to figure out what to do with it.