Smart Transportation

Self-Driving Car: Levels, Benefits And Constraints

Self-driving cars have become the new technological El Dorado. According to a Strategy Analytics report, the autonomous vehicle industry would be worth $7 trillion by 2050. While fully-automated cars still face regulatory, safety and security issues, many autonomous vehicles are already in commercial use. Read on to learn how self-driving cars work, and how they can benefit urban society.

In this page:

What Is A Self-Driving Car?

A self-driving car is a vehicle that can operate with little to no human assistance. Self-driving cars are equipped with technologies that can create an image of their surroundings and navigate traffic. A self-driving car can also be referred to as a driverless car, autonomous car, or robot car.

The SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) International—a professional organization in the field of engineering—created a standard for levels of automation. Each automation level relates to two key metrics: the autonomous capabilities of the car, and the type of interaction between the car and the driver.

The five levels of automation are:

  • Level 0—no driving automation: A human driver is fully responsible for operating the vehicle. However, the system may send alerts to warn the driver of any perceived danger.
  • Level 1—driving assistance: An automated driving system (ADS) assists the human driver by performing a driving task. The ADS can steer the wheel or control the driving speed, but it cannot do both tasks simultaneously.
  • Level 2—partial driving automation: A human driver and one or more ADS features share the responsibility for operating the car. The ADS can steer the wheel and control the driving speed simultaneously while the driver monitors the performance of the ADS.
  • Level 3—conditional driving automation: The ADS can drive the car and monitor the environment. Human drivers are free to take their eyes off the road but need to remain in the driver’s seat to respond to any ADS request and intervene.
  • Level 4—highly automated driving: The ADS can drive the car, monitor the environment, and doesn’t require human intervention. However, at this level, the ADS is limited to geofenced areas or special circumstances such as traffic jams.
  • Level 5—complete automation: The car is fully autonomous—it requires no human intervention and can drive on roads and in diverse environmental conditions.

Self-Driving Car Technology

Self-driving cars use technologies to create a virtual map of their surroundings. GPS systems, sensors, and radars help the car get a clear and live picture of the road. Laser Illuminated Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) technology helps the vehicle orient and interact with surrounding objects and infrastructure sensors. Cars equipped with Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) can connect with each other via an ad-hoc network.

Advanced control systems process the geospatial information and make decisions based on the information. For example, once the car receives information about the road conditions, the advanced control system charts a route and tells the vehicle actuators how to drive. Some control systems are equipped with intelligent object detection that helps the system navigate obstacles.

Three Benefits Of Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars can have tremendous benefits for individuals and societies. Here are three of the main benefits. 


1. Reduced emissions

The US transportation sector produces 30% of all U.S global warming emissions. Despite the dire environmental consequences of emissions, more vehicles are deployed daily, partly due to the demand for more delivery trucks for last-mile delivery. Traffic jams, excessive speed, and braking and re-accelerating also contribute to pollution. 

Self-driving cars help reduce the pollution emitted by vehicles. Autonomous capabilities such as consistent driving speeds and keeping a measured distance between vehicles can reduce unnecessary breaking and re-acceleration. Electronic models of self-driving cars with an electric or hybrid engine further reduce pollution by eliminating or lessening the use of fuel.


2. Road safety

Road accidents result in 1.25 million deaths and 20-50 million injuries worldwide. If nothing changes, road traffic injuries may become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030.

Self-driving cars may be the solution to road accidents. Since human error is the cause of around 90% of traffic accidents, delegating most or all of the vehicle operating responsibilities to the ADS can increase road safety. While fully automated vehicles haven’t been commercially adopted yet, many cars today are equipped with sensors and advanced systems that alert drivers to dangers.


3. Less traffic

Research by INRIX ranks the U.S as the fifth most congested country, with Thailand in the lead for the title of “World’s Most Congested Country”. Drivers in the U.S spend an average of 41 hours a year in traffic jams. 

Self-driving car technology, such as connected cars, may offer a solution to clogged roads. Connected cars can communicate with each other can help optimize routes for each individual vehicle, creating a network of information that helps distribute traffic flow. 

Three Arguments Against Self-Driving Cars

Like all good things, autonomous vehicles have a downside. Here are three reasons autonomous cars may prove to be detrimental or even dangerous.


1. Loss of jobs 

The ultimate goal of self-driving cars is to delegate the responsibility of driving to a machine. When fully-autonomous self-driving cars are sold commercially, people that rely on driving for their income may lose this form of livelihood. People who manage a fleet of drivers may be terminated, alongside dedicated training facilities and services such as driving lessons and licenses.


2. Moral machine

Fully autonomous self-driving cars need to be able to make moral decisions, along with technical driving decisions. 

The first question is are self-driving cars capable of making swift moral judgment calls to the same level of a human being? If a person jumps in front of the car, and the car is left with the dilemma of hitting the person or swerving to the side, what will the car choose? The second question is, if the car is indeed capable of making moral decisions, should it be allowed to do so?


3. Criminal hacking

Car thieves once used physical objects to unlock a car, nowadays thieves use technology to hack the car system.

Ironically, as cars become more sophisticated, their systems provide cybercriminals with more hacking opportunities. A cyber attack on a fully automated self-driving car may lead to traffic jams, fatalities due to traffic accidents, or even serve as an entry point to local traffic systems.

Self-Driving Car Companies—The Force Behind the Next Mobility Evolution

According to Allied Research, the self-driving vehicle market is expected to grow from $54.23 billion in 2019 to $556.67 billion in 2026. These numbers support the rising trend of investment in the research and development of autonomous vehicle technology. 

BMW has invested in many self-driving endeavors, such as monetary investments in self-driving startup Nauto and a partnership with Daimler to develop autonomous driving technology. Some BMW models are equipped with driver assistance and intelligent parking system called ConnectedDrive. 

Waymo already deploys commercial applications of self-driving technology. Waymo caters to consumers and business clients alike by offering a robo-taxi service based on driverless technology and selling LiDAR technology to non-competing businesses. 

It is yet unclear which company will win the race towards the new El Dorado of the mobility industry. The self-driving car business is currently steeped in regulatory and ethical controversy, and the debate between the cons and pros is at a standstill. It is up to innovators to push onward, despite the piling challenges, and make autonomous vehicles a reality.