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Driverless Cars: Where They Stand Now


Level 4 fully automated (in certain conditions) driverless vehicles are already here. In Phoenix, residents can apply for Waymo’s Early Rider program, which allows them to take taxilike rides around the metro area in the company’s automated Chrysler Pacificas and hybrid minivans—no driver necessary. “It makes sense,” Huei Peng says. The University of Michigan mechanical engineering professor and director of the Mcity research facility continues: “Phoenix has no snow, very little rain. It’s easier to keep the camera lenses and lidar clear without degrading operation.”

Peng’s Ann Arbor-based Mcity operates two automated shuttles students can ride around the University of Michigan campus. “I call it Level 4-minus,” Peng says. “Because our shuttles are fixed-route only, it’s hugely different, a much simpler environment. We only need to be perfect on this one route. A driver isn’t necessary, but for now we do have a safety conductor on board at all times. We choose to operate the shuttles as Level 3 vehicles so the community and riders feel more comfortable.”

The Mcity research park employs 50 University of Michigan faculty members and more than 100 students in an environment studying some 1,500 connected test vehicles, the world’s largest CAV program.

Level 2 partially automated vehicles are sold by GM (Cadillac Super Cruise), Nissan (ProPilot), Tesla (Autopilot), and Mercedes-Benz (Distronic Plus), among others. The first commercially available Level 3 vehicle, which can take full control under constant driver supervision, is expected to be Audi’s 2019 A8, although its Traffic Jam Pilot system has yet to be approved for the U.S. market. Interestingly, in 2012 Google built a Level 3 vehicle for testing by its employees, who could ride from Mountain View, California, to Lake Tahoe. “After looking at the data from onboard cameras, they stopped the program,” Larry Burns says. “People were falling asleep, eating, reading—they were doing things that made it impossible to re-engage the driver. That’s why Waymo is aiming to take the driver out of the loop entirely.” (It’s a development some Arizonans aren’t particularly happy with.)

How far off are Level 4 or Level 5 vehicles? “I think we’ll reach the tipping point,” Burns says, “when it’s clear that the value of the system exceeds its price. I think we’re in a five-year window where that could happen. But I don’t think Level 5 is ever gonna happen. I don’t think it has to happen. Level 4 vehicles, even restricted to certain areas and conditions, will get us where we want to be. Do we really want a Level 5 vehicle driving in a snowstorm on Colorado’s Loveland Pass at night? I don’t think any vehicle should be doing that.”

Richard Wallace of the Center for Auto Research says an industry survey suggests Level 5 vehicles might appear around 2030. But he agrees with Burns: “I think [artificial intelligence] alone isn’t the answer. If it fails, there’s nobody there. So maybe it’s AI working with humans.”

Naturally, the advent of computer-driven vehicles has spawned book after book of new government regulations. Since 2012, 41 states and Washington, D.C. have put forward proposals for automated cars; 29 (and D.C.) have enacted legislation. On a federal level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2016 issued a Federal Automated Vehicle Policy designed for safety assurance and enabling CAV innovations. In 2017, following public comments and congressional hearings, the agency released “A Vision for Safety 2.0,” incorporating safety-related voluntary measures for CAVs. As we go to press, the Department of Transportation and NHTSA are at work on version 3.0.

“We don’t know what’s going to be in the federal safety standards that are going to govern Level 4 or 5 vehicles,” Wallace says. “I’m not sure NHTSA wants to become a software-testing company. Do they outsource this to AI experts, cyber experts? Do they bring them in house? Will they be competing with GM and Google for talent? NHTSA is going to have to figure out a lot to certify these new vehicles.”

John Maddox, formerly of ACM, notes we have a century of experience with today’s system. “We know how to validate a vehicle, but take the human out of the loop, and you can’t apply the same 100-year methodology,” he says. “That’s the key tech hurdle. The technology is moving so fast that no one company knows how to do it all. Companies have learned bits and pieces—so a little sharing could go a long way. We need to work across companies, across countries. That way, we have a chance of creating a harmonized standard. At the ACM, we’re reaching out to help create that standard.”

Bottom line: For now, the world of automated vehicles is the Wild West. So buckle up. It’s gonna be a helluva ride.

By Definition:
The Society of Automotive Engineers’ Automated-Driving Levels

Level 0: No Automation
No robot. A conventional vehicle where the human controls everything.

Level 1: Driver Assistance
The car can help. Most functions controlled by the driver, but steering or gas/braking (not both) may be automated at certain times.

Level 2: Partial Automation
The car can help more. Most functions controlled by the driver, but steering and gas/brakes may be automated simultaneously. The driver must monitor the environment at all times.

Level 3: Conditional Automation
The car can drive in certain situations. The driver must be ready to retake control at system’s request.

Level 4: High Automation
The car can do all the driving under certain conditions. The human doesn’t need to pay attention in such circumstances.

Level 5: Full Automation
The car can do all the driving in any circumstance. Humans are merely passengers and need not be involved in driving.



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