Modern cars have some amazing driver-assistance features.
Even the humble Toyota Corolla has cruise control that can automatically keep you the correct distance from the car in front, right down to a standstill, and give you a nudge if you start straying out of your motorway lane.
Cars from high-end brands like Mercedes-Benz and Tesla can do much more. Even make a lane change : simply click the indicator and if traffic conditions are suitable, the car handles steering and throttle to shift you across.
It’s almost like these cars are driving themselves. But they’re not. You cannot buy an autonomous car yet .
There’s an enormous difference between “autonomous” and “automated” , logically and legally.
The point is not necessarily what the car can do, but what the driver is allowed to do. The stuff I’ve just talked about is impressive, but the driver is still required to be in charge at all times. You can’t check your text messages or get into the passenger’s seat.
There are different “Levels” of automated driving devised by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and agreed upon by the car industry: from 0 (no automation) to 5 (fully self-driving) .
Even the most advanced production cars on sale are still at Level 2, where the car can handle some tasks but the driver has to be in control.
From Level 2 to 3 is a big step. It’ll mean the driver can indeed do something else while the car is driving – although we’ll still have to be ready to take over if the car asks us to.
The new Audi A8 is theoretically capable of Level 3 self-driving in select speed, traffic and roading conditions, but it’s not operational yet in New Zealand. Or wider Europe. Or the United States. There are infrastructure and legislative issues.
You can order a Tesla with “Full Self Driving Capability” , but that just means it’s set up with the right software and sensors for a future time when that might actually happen.
The technology does exist. Some carmakers, tech companies and ride-haIling services (like Uber) are already testing Level 4 “high automation” cars on public roads.
There are also some shuttles operating that don’t have drivers or even steering wheels. But they operate on strictly controlled routes, for very short distances. Christchurch Airport is testing just such a vehicle .
A true self-driving car will be able to take you anywhere you can go in your regular vehicle without prior programming, dealing with any traffic conditions and problems that might arise on the way.
Speaking to media a couple of years ago, Jochen Haab, head of active safety at Mercedes-Benz, put it in terms we can all understand: “An autonomous car is like pregnancy. It can be autonomous or not – meaning it can do things by itself or it cannot. You can’t be half-pregnant or partially pregnant and a car can’t be partially autonomous.”
You can’t argue with that.