JUST WHAT IS “SELF-DRIVING”? There is some confusion about what one can expect from “self-driving cars.” The term often refers to an idealized vision combining today’s cars with infallible computers able to drive them, surpassing the capability of human drivers. The reality is far from it. In fact, many different conceptual and engineering approaches are being pursued by several players, revealing profound differences in what a “self-driving car” would be and its potential social and economic impact. On one hand, there is the approach that is typically favored by the automotive industry, which is based on a sequence of incremental advances in the technology, and their implementation on production vehicles made available for purchase to the general public. Indeed, we already have many systems on board today’s cars that provide a form of automation without us noticing: Examples include cruise control, ABS, and electronic stability control. NHTSA classifies this as “Level 1” automation. We have come to accept these as reliable safety-enhancing features on our cars. Level 2 automation involves at least two primary control functions (e.g., steering and speed control) to relieve drivers’ workload, while requiring them to be fully engaged at all times. The manufacturer classifies the Tesla Autopilot as Level 2 automation. In Level 3 automation systems, a driver could cede complete control of the vehicle, while being expected to intervene occasionally, upon request, and within a sufficiently comfortable transition time. Level 4 automation, or “full autonomy,” does not require or expect driver intervention, besides choosing a destination, route, or other navigational preferences. In fact, at this level of automation, no human driver or passenger is required to be on board.
(Right) The National Highway Traffic Administration categorizes five levels of vehicle automation; from no automation, to full self-driving capability.
Published on Nov 18, 2016
Annual magazine review of MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department research and educational initiatives.