How close are we to the reality of self-driving cars?

At SHARE NOW, our mission is to contribute to more liveable cities. Car-sharing is a fantastic way to reduce congestion, but what about self-driving vehicles? How close are we to taking fully autonomous trips across our urban landscapes?

"I would be shocked if we do not achieve full self-driving safer than a human this year," said Elon Musk at the Tesla Q4 2021 Earnings Call, referring to 2022. He says more or less the same thing every year and has done for the best part of a decade, but Musk is aware of the main hurdle self-driving cars still face.

The hardware for self-driving cars, at least on the side of the vehicle, has been around for a while. The software can drive a car already. But when the software fails on your iPhone, the device crashes. When the software fails on your self-driving car, the car… well, crashes.

In order to take a more detailed look at where we currently are on this journey to completely safe, completely automated driving we can take a look at a particular scale. Levels of driving automation are dictated by the SAE classification. Published in 2014 by the standardisation body SAE International, the six levels of autonomous driving range from fully manual to fully automated systems. So where are we on the scale right now?

Level 0: the old way

The first level of the SAE classification system is essentially the way we’ve been driving for decades. That does not necessarily mean zero automation, though. Automated warning systems covering everything from parking sensors to tire pressure monitors fall into this category. The key here is that there is no sustained vehicle control from the computers - the driver controls all aspects of the car's movement.

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Level 1: the hands-on way

When moving up to Level 1 - often referred to as the “hands-on” level of automation - we’re getting into the territory of self-driving cars. At Level 1 of the SAE classification system, the driver and the automated system share control of the vehicle. This includes features such as cruise control, which few would consider high-tech these days, but also automated parking systems and automatic emergency braking. The Advanced Lane Keeping Assistance and Road Edge Detection on the Peugeot 3008 are examples of Level 1 automation among the SHARE NOW fleet.

Level 2: the hands-off way

It’s when we get up to Level 2 that things start to feel a little more futuristic. With this hands-off level of automation, the self-driving system takes full control of the vehicle including accelerating, braking and steering. The driver must be prepared to intervene immediately at any time. Tesla’s Autopilot is perhaps the most famous example of a Level 2 SEA system integrated into a vehicle today. Launched in October 2015, Autopilot has undergone multiple major updates and is legal in several US states.

© Image: Roberto Nickson / Unsplash

Level 3: the eyes-off way

At Level 3, the driver can safely turn their attention away from the road altogether and the Tomorrow’s World dream of watching a movie whilst ‘driving’ begins. Mercedes-Benz - with its new Drive Pilot - became the first to get international certification for a Level 3 system at the end of 2021. The key difference between this and Autopilot is liability. Once you engage Drive Pilot, you are no longer legally liable for the car's operation until it disengages. Crash, and it’s all Mercedes' fault. Drive Pilot has already been approved for use on all German motorways.

© Image: Samuele Errico Piccarini / Unsplash

Level 4: the mind-off way

At SAE Level 3, drivers are meant to be able to intervene within a certain time (specified by the manufacturer) when called upon to do so by the vehicle. Once we get to Level 4, no driver attention is ever required for safety. This is the stage at which you are allowed to be asleep at the wheel. There is a catch, however. At Level 4, self-driving is restricted to limited geofenced areas. Think delivery robots like those from Starship or Amazon, or robotaxis on a large, private campus.

© Image: Bill Nino / Unsplash

Level 5: steering wheel optional

Lastly, we reach SAE Level 5. At this level of self-driving vehicles, no human intervention is required at all. Such is the level of automation, a steering wheel is considered optional. Level 5 systems can operate under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver. Examples of a Level 5 system remain hypothetical at this stage, but you can imagine autonomous trucks delivering heavy goods, completely autonomous taxis driving across whole cities or even airborne self-driving vehicles. The sky really is the limit!

© Image: Alessio Lin / Unsplash

One of the key jumps in the journey of self-driving cars is from SAE Level 2 to SAE Level 3. This is where drivers go from having to be aware of their surroundings to being allowed to switch off. It’s because of this key change that the legal ramifications of the SAE levels come into play. It’s precisely at this transition point where we are currently at globally. Systems like Tesla’s Full Self Driving (FSD) feature - currently only available to employees and select early access testers, who can use FSD on public roads - are technically capable of Level 3 but have not yet jumped the legal hurdles in the way that Mercedes' system has. Drive Pilot is not yet available to the public, but when it is released it will mark the jump from Level 2 to Level 3 - and that’s a huge step into the future of self-driving cars.

David McCourt

David McCourt

Sr. Editorial Content Strategist

"Own less, share more."

David is on a mission to improve the quality of life in cities through modern mobility solutions.