Finally, after what seems like decades of promises and dreams from Hollywood and science fiction, the age of the fully autonomous vehicle is almost upon us.

Our fantasies of being driven around by a completely self-driving car are almost a reality, with new groundbreaking leaps in technology happening seemingly every day.

Several big automotive and technology companies have taken the lead in trying to bring the first commercially viable AI car to market, with some every collaborating to gain an advantage.

There are so many things to understand about the future of driving, so we put together a comprehensive guide to all things autonomous vehicle related so you can know when exactly you can take one of them for a spin.

Woman sitting in self driving car

Autonomous vs Automated

The first thing we need to clear up is what exactly an autonomous car is and how it is different from being automated.

When something is automated, it means it has been programed to operate within clearly defined boundaries without human intervention. Many things in our society could be considered automated; your toaster is an automated toasting machine; your kettle is an automated water boiler; your fridge is an automated cooling device. These things all do their jobs without us interfering, but they can only function in their very specific areas and to very specific stimuli.

Conversely, something that is considered autonomous is something that is completely self-governing and capable of making rational decisions based on changing situations. An autonomous machine would be able to respond to uncertain stimuli and assess the different actions available to it through logic and then arrive at the best conclusion based on the evidence provided. Most sentient animals, including humans, would be considered autonomous as they are capable of interesting with the world independently of outside intervention and making their own decisions.

Thus, we have a clear difference between automated and autonomous. An automated car would only be able to follow a single, clearly defined route and would not be able to respond to things like other cars or changes in the road condition. An autonomous vehicle should be able to handle any road situation a human could, including changing lanes, parking, avoiding collisions, and adjusting for different weather.

The Levels Of Autonomous Vehicles

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) have established a heirarchy of autonomous intelligence when referring to vehicles. This is a way of gauging exactly how intelligent a car is, and how far away we are from achieving the dream of a fully self-driving car.

Level 0

The base level of autonomous vehicle would allow for automated systems warnings and momentary control over the vehicle. Many standard cars could now be considered at least Level 0 on the scale.

Level 1

Level 1 autonomy is known as “hands on” autonomy, which means the driver and the car share control over the car. Examples of Level 1 technology would include Land Departure Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control, and Parking Assist, where either the steering or speed is controlled by the driver and the other is controlled by the car. Most new vehicles include some degree of Level 1 technology.

Level 2

Level 2, also called “hands off”, is characterised by the car taking full control of the vehicle and responding to changing conditions. However, a human driver is still required to monitor the vehicle’s progress and may have to take over in certain situations. Very few cars can claim to have an active Level 2 product in their cars actually on the road as of 2019, with the exception of Tesla and their Autopilot mode.

Level 3

Level 3 is the next goal for many manufacturers and is known as “eyes off” capabilities. A Level 3 car would take control of all driving situations, including emergency braking. The driver is able to turn attention away from the road and text or watch a movie. They must still be prepared to take control over the car again should an unforeseen situation arise. So far, only one vehicle has claimed Level 3 autonomy in the 2018 Audi A8 Luxury Sedan, which can reportedly take full control of the car in slow moving traffic.

Level 4

This level is similar to Level 3, however, the driver is never expected to take over the car for safety reasons. This “mind off” autonomy means the driver is able to leave the driver’s seat and go to sleep for instance. This level requires a car to be able to abort the trip by parking safely should the driver not take control back. No commercially available cars have yet reached Level 4 autonomy.

Level 5

The Holy Grail of autonomous driving, a Level 5 vehicle would be considered completely self-driving. In this level of car, the steering wheel would be optional, as the driver would never be expected to control the car themselves. This would completely change the nature of transportation and promises many advancements in travel and society.

Autonomous cars communicating with each other on road

Key driving technologies

To help us reach this lofty goal, many new technologies have had to be invented or expanded upon. Fully autonomous driving requires an unprecedented level of information be collected and analysed in a split second to ensure proper functioning of the vehicle.

LiDAR

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To help an autonomous car “see” the environment around it, many companies have turned to LiDAR. This is a form of navigation that uses pulsed lasers that bounce off the surrounding environment and then the reflected light is picked up by a highly sensitive sensor on board the car. This allows the car to build a digital map of its surroundings so that it can be aware of all cars and pedestrians around it.

Algorithms

Due to the highly data intensive nature of autonomous driving, new computer algorithms have had to be developed to process all of this information rapidly and efficiently. Many current autonomous cars are being built not by car manufacturers, but by Silicon Valley technology companies who specialise in writing highly advanced computer code. These algorithms process all the car’s decisions and situational awareness, allowing it to navigate and make the right decision when it comes to an emergency situation.

Live communication

Another technology that will likely play a crucial role in the future of self-driving cars is live communication between all autonomous vehicles. With the rolling out of 5G cellular networks, speeds previously considered outside the realm of possibility are now within reach. If every AI car was equipped with 5G communication capabilities, they could all share their location information with each other and avoid collisions with ease. This would also improve navigation and safety.

Cameras

Many modern cars already use cameras in some of their best features including rear parking assist, forward collision avoidance, and lane departure detection. In autonomous vehicles, cameras could be used to further enhance their awareness of their surroundings and improve their driving capabilities. They could be further enhanced using infrared LED lights, allowing for accurate night vision as well.

Artificial Intelligence

The buzz word everyone has heard a million times by now, artificial intelligence will obviously play a huge role in a fully autonomous vehicle. AI is any machine that is capable of making decisions based on evidence and logic, as well as learning from past experiences and being able to predict likely outcomes. This will act as the “brains” of a self-driving car, as it will ultimately be making the thousands of decisions necessary to get a car from point A to point B.

Man pressing future start button in self-driving car

How Far Off Are We From Truly Autonomous Vehicles?

This question on everyone’s lips is when will be finally be able to live out our scifi dreams of being driven around by our robotic chauffeur!

This is a difficult question as there are many variables in play that will affect the rollout of self-driving cars around the world. Governments are still grappling with the legalities surrounding who would be at fault during a crash, whether drivers would still need a license, and how traffic would work with autonomous vehicles at the wheel. Similarly, ethicists are arguing over what the ethical choices would be in an emergency situation when the vehicle is the one in charge. Finally, there are the obvious technological hurdles that need to be jumped in order for a truly autonomous vehicle to become a reality.

With companies like Tesla and Audi already pushing the boundaries in 2019 for Level 3 autonomy, however, self-driving cars will probably be on the road sooner than you expect. ABI, a marketing firm based in the UK, recently estimated that by 2025 over 8 million Level 3 or higher vehicles will be on the road. Some other analysts are even calling this estimate conservative, saying the figure could be much higher. Some estimates say that by 2050, almost every car on the road worldwide will be fully autonomous and manual driving will be a thing of the past.

How car ownership will work in the age of self-driving cars is also likely to change. Many experts predict that the first autonomous cars we will interact with will be part of larger fleets of “for hire” taxi services, similar to Uber or Lyft, but without a driver behind the wheel. This makes sense, as to begin with, autonomous cars are likely to be extremely expensive and only really affordable to the mega-rich or multinational corporations. In a hundred years, its possible that no one will really “own” a car, as they all operate on a shared basis and drop people off where they need to go and then move onto the next person. This would eliminate the costs of owning a car, decrease congestion, allow for reclamation of huge amounts of space previously required for parking, and help protect the environment.

The 2020s will likely see the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles in most countries, as people look to take back the time spent behind the wheel and spend it interacting with their families or catching up on work. This new driving economy will completely revolutionise the nature of travel, and could put extra pressure on airlines and trains who will now have a new competitor for longer distances. In any case, the rise of AI cars can only be a good thing for the consumer, and for the environment.