Self-driving vehicles are cars that are simply operated without requiring the need of human drivers. Also known as autonomous or “driverless” cars, they feature a slew of sensors and software to control, navigate and drive the vehicle.
In fact, experiments were already done as early as the 1920s. The first successful semi-automated car was developed in 1977 by Japan’s Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory which required specially marked streets that were interpreted by two car cameras and an analog computer.
By the 1980s, driverless cars were traversing public roads, already running at 31kph. Obstacle avoidance was eventually added, together with off-road driving in day and nighttime conditions. And by 1995, a major milestone was achieved when the first autonomous coast-to-coast drive was completed in the United States.
In 2017, carmakers such as Audi was able to build the A8 that could go up to speeds of 60kph using its “Audi AI.”
Autonomous driving levels
Eventually, the world of self-driving cars came up with a globally active professional association known as SAE International, a US-based group that would oversee these kinds of technology.
And so — in SAE standards — levels of automation were established.
Level 0 (No automation): The automated system can issue warnings and may momentarily intervene. But it has no sustained control of the vehicle.
Level 1 (Driver Assistance/“Hands on”): Both driver and the automated system have shared control over the vehicle. Examples of these are cruise control, parking assistance, lane-keeping assistance and automatic emergency braking, to name a few.
Level 2 (Partial automation/“Hands off”): The automated system takes full control of the vehicle — meaning, accelerating, braking and steering. However; the driver must still be in constant alert to instantly intervene at any time. Here, the eyes of the driver are simultaneously monitored by a camera to see if he/ she is still keeping track of the road.
Level 3 (Conditional automation/“Eyes off”): The driver can already safely not attend to driving while on the road — which means, he/ she can already text or watch a movie. The vehicle itself can already handle situations wherein quick responses are needed, such as emergency braking. The driver — however —must still be ready to take over the reins when called upon by the vehicle itself.
Audi claimed to have reached this level in 2017, touting the A8 to be the first production car to ever do so.
Level 4 (“Mind off”/High Automation): Here, the driver may safely go to sleep or even leave the driver’s seat. The vehicle may — however — safely abort the trip by parking the car, if the driver does not retake the wheel when called to do so.
Level 5 (Full automation/“Steering wheel optional”): At this level, no human intervention is required. One is example is a robotic taxi.
Self-driving car in the Philippines
In the country, the pilot-testing of autonomous vehicles was said to have taken place in New Clark City in Pampanga during our hosting of the 30th Southeast Asian Games late last year. It was even said that we were the first country in Asia to have experienced these self-driving vehicles.
They were used to ferry the athletes and the riding public, and traveled a 500-meter distance at low speeds.
The intention was designed to put pedestrians first and make the cities more walkable and breathable by cutting down pollution and build a sense of community.
Challenges of automation
Since self-driving cars are operated by artificial intelligence (AI), there are already a number of perennial stumbling blocks these vehicles have encountered. One is the human factor. Factors such as pedestrians, bicyclists and animals have yet to have been effectively programmed in driving algorithms. On the other hand, humans on the road are also puzzled in determining whether the car is operated by AI or otherwise since they usually make eye contact with the driver or use hand signals.
In 2018, an Uber safety driver in an autonomous car in Arizona, US fatally killed a pedestrian who was pushing a bicycle across an unlit section of the road at night. It was said that the driver was not paying attention on the road and was instead attending to her smartphone at the time of the accident.
Another obstacle these automated vehicles encounter are moral issues. While initially the intention of creating these autonomous cars were to reduce road crashes by as much as to 90 percent and providing convenience for the elderly and young passengers, a number of ethical issues have not yet been fully addressed. These are: moral, financial and criminal liabilities in fatal crashes, privacy issues, including potential for mass surveillance, exposure to hacking and malware and other concerns in AI capabilities.
With a host of concerns troubling driverless cars, a number of regulating bodies have set the tone to properly safeguard the public’s safety on the road.
In 2016, the California Department of Motor Vehicles ordered Uber to remove its self-driving vehicles in response to a couple of violations. While in Singapore, a transit authority partnered with United Kingdom to begin test runs for a fleet of automated taxis.
Meantime, 2017 saw Hungary allow public road tests to further develop these vehicles. In South Korea, the lack of universal standards is preventing its own legislation from implementing new domestic rules.
Just this year, according to a statement by the National Transportation Safety Board in the US: “There is not a vehicle currently available to US consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to US consumers still requires the driver to be actively engaged in the driving task, even when advanced driver assistance systems are activated. If you are selling a car with an advanced driver assistance system, you’re not selling a self-driving car. If you are driving a car with an advanced driver assistance system, you don’t own a self-driving car.”
Future of driverless cars
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce accidents and insurance rates — but early data is not showing this. Still, a handful of companies like Tesla are striving their best to fast-track the progress of these vehicles.
Currently, most players in the automotive industry are cautiously moving towards the safe side and are in a “plateau of productivity” for mass use. For them, driverless cars are in “the trough of disillusionment” for the moment and are sticking to — at least — the lower levels of automation.
Hence — according to one report — fully autonomous cars in the mass market are still decades away — for now.