How Long, Really, Until Self-Driving Cars Become Mainstream?
We’ve been hearing stories about self-driving cars — both positive and negative — since Telsa premiered its autopilot feature in 2014. In the last five years, no one has quite managed to bring a fully autonomous car into being. How long will it be before we start seeing more self-driving vehicles on the world’s highways?
Levels of Autonomy
Before we start speculating on when these self-driving cars will become mainstream, it might help to understand what classifies a car as autonomous. There are five levels of autonomy when it comes to vehicles, starting from zero.
Level Zero is the car you drive today that has no automation. Your daily vehicle doesn’t have many bells and whistles, and you’re responsible for controlling it from the moment you turn it on until you shut the key off.
Some new cars have Level One automation, which includes basic driver assistance. If your car has adaptive cruise control or lane-keeping assist, then you’ve already got a little bit of automation under your belt.
Vehicles with Level Two automation can help with stopping and starting the car and can control speed and steering. However, you need to keep your hands on the wheel at all times.
Level Three automation is what we see in Tesla’s autopilot. The car can essentially drive itself, but you still need a driver behind the wheel to take over if it encounters something it can’t handle.
Level Four automation means your car will be able to drive itself without any input from you. All you have to do is enter your destination, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Level Five is complete automation. These vehicles won’t even need a steering wheel because they’ll be able to do everything by themselves.
We’ve already reached Level Three automation as of 2019. When will we start seeing more Level Four and Five options?
We already have the technology for partial automation. How many more upgrades will vehicles need before we can let our cars drive us instead of the other way around?
Self-driving cars won’t need things like side-view mirrors — their cameras and radar/LIDAR sensors provide them with a 360-degree view of the road around them. However, passengers still enjoy seeing where they’re going, which means automotive manufacturers will have to upgrade their windshields. The Tesla Model 3 is a great example of this. While it’s only got partial automation, it comes equipped with an upgraded windshield that’s more durable than traditional glass.
Of course, removing things like mirrors in favor of radar/LIDAR sensors puts self-driving car companies at odds with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This body regulates whether these vehicles will be able to become mainstream or not.
Self-driving car companies still have several legal hurdles to overcome before their vehicles will make it into the mainstream. NHSTA is responsible for motor vehicle safety, which means it’s up to that administration to determine things like who is liable in a self-driving car accident. Is the owner liable, even though they’re not controlling the vehicle. Does that liability fall on the manufacturer or even the state?
There is also the problem of whether or not computers will be capable of making ethical decisions that put their driver or passengers at risk if an accident is unavoidable. Can a self-driving car make the decision to destroy itself and its passengers if there’s a child in the road or other similar scenarios? Government agencies aren’t keen to permit self-driving cars to operate if manufacturers can’t answer those questions.
When Will They Become Mainstream?
When will self-driving cars really become mainstream? It’s hard to put a definitive date on this monumental milestone because there are so many technological and legal hurdles for manufacturers to overcome. It could be next year, or it could be 10 years away. There’s no way to tell. The technology is nearly there, with self-driving cars passing more tests every year. However, it will take more than a few successful runs to make it legal to let your car do the driving.
We’ll keep our eyes open, but we wouldn’t start anticipating autonomous vehicles at local dealerships for a few more years.