Semi-Autonomous Cars Bring the Self-Driving Car Closer to Reality

Fully autonomous cars are still a long shot, but semi-autonomous cars are here, now.


With every big car manufacturer conducting their own research, and even non-automotive companies like Google and Uber trying their hand at autonomous cars, it seems that the self-driving car is a certainty. But with the slow evolution of regulation regarding autonomous cars, and the inability of the technology to handle certain aspects of driving (like poor road conditions or unsafe moves from other drivers), fully autonomous cars are still a ways off.

In the meantime, cars are more commonly being equipped with features that make them semi-autonomous. Most high-end cars from brands like Mercedes, BMW and Lexus are equipped with radar, cameras and other sensors that allow for safety and convenience features like automatic cruise control, automatic parking, lane keeping and automatic braking. Though they’re still a far cry from full-fledged self-driving cars, they accumulate into what is essentially a semi-autonomous car or, as the NHTSA puts it, a “Level 2” autonomous car (Level 4 being full autonomy). For consumers, this is our first taste of a self-driving future.

The Levels of Autonomous Driving

Level 0: No automation. The driver is in complete control of every aspect of driving.
Level 1: Has one or more automated functions that operate independently of one another. Driver is still in full control, but systems can assist with certain functions (example: automatic cruise control).
Level 2: Has two or more automated functions that work in unison. A driver can cede control to these functions but must maintain focus on road conditions and can take over (example: Tesla Autopilot).
Level 3: Driver can cede control of the car and the car will take over in certain conditions. The car is capable of driving itself but the driver must be on hand to potentially takeover, albeit with a longer transition time than Level 2 (example: Volvo Intellisafe Autopilot).
Level 4: Car will drive by itself with no input from driver (example: Google Car).

Two of the first manufacturers to offer a Level 2 car are Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti. Mercedes already sells cars with its Distronic cruise control system with “Steering Assist.” On highways the car can make automatic adjustments to the wheel, keeping the car centered in the lane. Infiniti has a similar system in their steer-by-wire Q50 (i.e., fully electric steering). Granted, these systems aren’t billed as semi-autonomous driving (though they meet the Level 2 distinction) because at their core they’re still just safety and convenience features. You can take your hands off the wheel for small amounts of time but you’ll be prompted to put them back on the wheel — otherwise the systems shut off.

Recently, the concept of these tech features working in tandem to cumulate into a semi-autonomous car has taken a bigger step forward in Tesla’s Autopilot system. It uses forward-facing sonar and a camera, as well as ultrasonic sensors to monitor the space around the car at all times. Tesla’s cars have been equipped with this tech since October 2014 — it wasn’t until a recent software update have made it possible for Teslas to, in a limited capacity, control acceleration, brakes and steering to make the car pilot itself.

With Tesla's Autopilot a car can steer within the lane by itself, keep with the flow of traffic, overtake and will even change lanes on its own with the simple flick of the turn signal .

With the Autopilot update a car can steer within the lane by itself, keep with the flow of traffic, overtake and will even change lanes on its own with the simple flick of the turn signal (this is an industry first). Tesla will also use crowdsourced data to improve Autopilot in the future. It is intended for highway driving where traffic is relatively uneventful and road markings are clear. Most importantly, in the Tesla you can theoretically drive for hours down the highway without having to put your hands on the wheel, as Autopilot will not shut off when your hands are off the wheel. That said, Tesla asks that you do keep your hands on the wheel and pay full attention to the road. Autopilot is not sophisticated enough to work on non-highway roads and to act in the event of an emergency on its own.

You can expect similar Level 2 systems in the very near future from other manufacturers. Cadillac is aiming to put its semi-autonomous system in cars as soon as next year. Building on their preexisting lane keeping and adaptive cruise control features, Cadillac will debut “Super Cruise” on the flagship 2017 Cadillac CT6. In an interview with Autoline, GM’s Director of Electrical and Control Systems Research Cem Saraydar says Super Cruise will be a hands-off convenience feature. Also due next year is Audi’s “Traffic Jam Assist” that is capable of mitigating stop-and-go traffic on its own at speeds up to 40 mph; this will be available on the Audi Q7 next year.

IntelliSafe Auto Pilot interface
Volvo’s IntelliSafe Auto Pilot is one of the first Level 3 autonomous systems to be announced.

Volvo also recently released new info on their IntelliSafe Auto Pilot system and “Drive Me” program. IntelliSafe Auto Pilot will allow the car to take over steering, acceleration and breaking for limited amounts of time. Notable is Volvo’s insistence that driver’s will not have to keep their hands on the wheel and give their undivided attention to the road. This makes it a Level 3 system. Volvo says the program will start in 2017 in 100 customer cars around Gothenburg, with the feature available across the board some time around 2020. Toyota is also working on a similar system called “Highway Teammate,” while Honda has said it will have a semi-autonomous function ready soon. Both are expected to hit the market in 2020.

Google wants to ultimately remove driver controls completely. No wheel, no brakes, no accelerator. Nada.

Meanwhile, Google is making a huge push for its own self-driving tech and taking a decidedly different approach. While manufacturers are still working on integrating semi-autonomous tech that requires driver involvement, Google wants to ultimately remove driver controls completely. No wheel, no brakes, no accelerator. Nada. Google has implemented the “no control” policy in its prototype cars (the ones that look like koalas), but more realistically the tech giant has been in talks with established auto manufacturers (Diamler, Volkswagen, GM, etc.) to use their technology in their cars. Google believes this tech will be available to consumers by 2020. Elon Musk has also gone on record that fully autonomous Teslas could be ready as soon as 2018.

But fully autonomous cars still have a legal battle to face. Currently, they’re only legal for road testing in a few states. Even if manufacturers like Google and Tesla feel their autonomous cars are going to be ready soon, theres no telling if the legislation will be. But for consumers who are ready for an autonomous driving future, the wait is, in a sense, over. Semi-autonomous features are already here, with plenty more to follow.

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