Have you ever dreamed of the day where your car could drive for itself freeing you to do other things, such as reading, catching up on emails, watching a movie, or sleeping rather than focus on the road while in the car? Automotive manufacturers and transportation technology vendors are rapidly progressing us to that goal. Indeed, we discuss that “Autonomous Everything” is one of the four key parts of our AI-Enabled Vision of the Future.
The power of AI and Machine Learning combined with extremely detailed city and road mapping, lane-keeping, collision avoidance, and self-parking is leading to automobiles and trucks that can take us to our destinations without us having to keep our feet on the pedals or hands on the steering wheel.
However, as we have seen recently, a number of incidents and accidents have called into question how ready this technology is for general use. Furthermore, the transportation industry continues to innovate at a lightning pace, but not all innovation is happening at the same level. In order to understand the end vision of a future filled with autonomous vehicles of all sorts, we need to understand where the industry currently stands and where it is heading.
Levels of Autonomous Capabilities for Vehicles
The Society of Automotive Engineers classifies autonomous vehicle technology capabilities into six levels. We have summarized this below but be sure to check out their website for full details on these levels:
- Level 0: At this level, there are no autonomous features in this car. The driver is responsible for all operating tasks such as driving, steering, accelerating, and basically everything needed to drive a car. Pretty much all the cars and trucks currently on the road today are at Level 0 autonomy.
- Level 1: The vehicle is capable of only doing one autonomous task at a time such as lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control, or automated braking, but not any two or more of these combined. The driver still needs to be fully engaged behind the wheel and do most of the work driving the vehicle. These autonomous capabilities are mostly safety-oriented to handle situations preemptively on behalf of the driver. Many newer vehicles have Level 1 capabilities as described.
- Level 2: The vehicle has greater autonomous capabilities by combining two or more advanced driver assistance systems such as automatic lane keeping and breaking or steering and acceleration. While the driver can operate without needing to pay as much attention at this level, the vehicle is not really fully autonomous, and as a result, drivers need to be engaged and ready to take over control at any time. These vehicles are not really self-driving, and can only operate without human intervention in certain circumstances and with appropriate control. Vehicles with Level 2 Autonomous capabilities include Tesla Autopilot, Cadillac Super Cruise, Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, and Volvo Pilot Assist.
- Level 3: This is the so-called “conditional autonomy” level in which the vehicle is capable of driving from a starting point to destination without human involvement, but only in certain conditions. If the system is not able to operate reliably, then a human is called on to intervene. The driver basically needs to be “at the ready” even if they might not be paying attention at the time at which they need to be ready. Currently, the only vehicle that is generally accepted to be at Level 3 autonomy is the Audi A8, even though Tesla has blurred the lines with recent software updates.
- Level 4: At this level the vehicle is considered fully autonomous. In certain conditions the car will fully drive itself and not ask for human intervention to complete a trip. There are still some constraints such as being confined to certain geographical areas (geo-fence) and not going above certain speeds, or operate in certain severe weather environments. As a result, vehicles at this level of autonomy still need to have all the driver controls available: steering wheel, brakes, turn signals, etc. However, overall a vehicle at this level of autonomy will get you from point A to point B without requiring any human intervention. No vehicle for sale to consumers is currently at this level of autonomy.
- Level 5: This is the ultimate goal of a self driving vehicle, which can operate autonomously in every situation and condition. At this level, vehicles not only can operate without any interaction at all, even in unknown or severe situations, but human input is removed altogether to prevent any improper input. At level 5 autonomy there is no longer a need for human vehicle control inputs such as steering wheels, pedals, or joysticks. Level 5 vehicles can safely drive anywhere and at any speed in any condition.
Are All these Levels of Autonomy Equally Safe?
While the ultimate goal of self-driving vehicles is one in which humans are solely passengers, the reality of the situation is that we’re moving from a world where people have complete control of their vehicle to ones where they have none at all. The problem is when we’re operating in the middle ground — vehicles having some of the control, and humans still needed for some control. The main issue is that it’s psychologically very difficult to not pay attention to something until you absolutely need to pay attention to avoid a fatal outcome.
Autonomy levels 2 and 3, and quite possibly even 4, are the most dangerous levels of autonomous driving. Humans can easily be lulled into believing that the car has more control than it actually does. As a result, people do what they do when they don’t have to give their full attention: they sleep, converse with others, play with their phones or other devices, eat meals, apply makeup, or otherwise disengage with the road. It’s simply unreasonable to expect people to all of a sudden wake up, stop talking, turn off their devices, put away their food, and otherwise be 100% present with only a few seconds (or less) notice. Quite possibly, vehicles at autonomy levels 2-4 could be more dangerous than Level 0, 1, and 5 vehicles because of this uncertain element of control. Furthermore, Level 2 vehicles are too easily confused as level 3 vehicles based on the way the car manufacturers are marketing and promoting their cars. This leads to people thinking that the vehicles have more autonomous capabilities than they actually do. Likewise, vehicles at level 4 become “downgraded” to lower levels when situations deteriorate. The more rapidly these situations deteriorate the faster your almost-but-not-quite fully autonomous vehicle becomes Level 0 or 1. We’re not alone in believing that Levels 2-4 could be more harmful than valuable for autonomous driving. Google/Waymo and Ford have said that they will pursue only Level 5 driving to jump us to a safer and more valuable future.
Another unintended consequence of a world with mostly autonomous vehicles is that drivers start to lose practice driving in different situations as they become increasingly dependent on somewhat autonomous capabilities. Just like how many drivers can’t navigate their way around a town because of the pervasiveness of GPS, drivers that become used to Level 3 or 4 capabilities simply won’t have the experience or know-how to deal with life-or-death situations that build upon years of instinctive, muscle memory to rapidly correct.
What Happens in A World with Level 5 Autonomous Vehicles?
When most vehicles on the streets and highways are at Level 5 autonomy, it’s not just driving that changes — a lot of our society and way of life that revolves around the car and driving changes as well. When cars drive themselves, they will also park themselves. But do you need them to park in your garage? Will you need to hunt for parking spots when running errands? Can cities reclaim their streets from parked cars and devote more space to walking and biking? Instead of parking your car at a parking space or garage, autonomous vehicles can simply pick you up and drop you off where you need to be, and then shuttle themselves off to some other location to park, or pick up a new passenger. If you don’t have to park your own car, will one (positive) unintended consequence be a dramatic reduction of child and pet heat-related fatalities?
As we talked about in our AI-Enabled Vision of the Future we predict there will be an “uberfication” of most things. Individuals will no longer need to (or even want to) own cars but call on them when needed, such as commuting to work, running to the grocery store, or heading to your beach weekend vacation. If you no longer own a vehicle, then the garages of today won’t be necessary. Instead, if houses have garages at all, they will just be house delivery loading docks where autonomous vehicles will come to drop off packages. Why should these garages even be attached to the house then? Will detached garages now be more desirable than attached garages? Office complexes and retail establishments won’t need huge parking garages or wide expanses of parking spaces. This land can be recovered for other, more human-centric needs.
If humans are no longer needed to drive, what does this mean for mobility in general? We no longer need to make the tough call of taking keys away from elderly parents — they can have instant access to vehicles that will pick them up and drop them off as necessary. Instead of the routine of buying car seats for children, we can simply call on car seat installed vehicles. We no longer need to worry about how to divide ourselves in two when we need to drop off children at different locations at the same time. We no longer need to figure out how to get individuals without access to reliable transportation to the doctor for an appointment. With the ability to call on a driverless vehicle at all times we now provide on-demand transportation to all. One notable side-effect we predict of this movement to autonomous vehicles is the collapse of the rental car industry. Rental cars of tomorrow will be like Blockbuster video today – a curious relic of the past. If somehow the rental car companies of today manage to survive to tomorrow it’s only because they’ve radially changed their business and adapted to a future where very few have drivers licenses and just as few even know how to drive.
Likewise, what will happen when individuals don’t need to have a driver’s license or deal with the dreaded Department of Motor Vehicles? Perhaps that’s a good thing, but what does that mean as far as the idea of an identification document or revenues that states might be depending on from all vehicle-related transactions (traffic violations and license-related fees in particular). What will happen to gas stations? If people don’t need to fill up their own cars, and most likely, many autonomous vehicles will be electric powered, since range is no longer an issue, then the gas station might also become an endangered species. Indeed, the societal and overall economic impacts of a Level 5 Autonomous future is much more significant that most may be thinking.
Likewise, the laws and regulations of today for driving vehicles are not at all appropriate or applicable in the self-driving future. We will need new issues of liability to deal with when we have a complex combination when an on-demand driving company, self-driving vehicle, passengers, and pedestrians are involved. We need to untangle this web of liability as we have discussed in our past writing and podcast on this subject. There is going to have to be some coming together on both the state and federal level to come up with a standard for autonomous vehicles. Vehicles will need to be continuously certified to operate on roads where fewer and fewer non-autonomous vehicles will be present.
Embrace the Future or Risk Demise
The more we think about the future that’s Level 5 Autonomous, the more we realize how much this will result in changes — not just for individual drivers or car companies, but for everyone. Multiple businesses, industries and lives will be impacted. And it is our belief that this will happen sooner than you expect. Everything from insurance to retail to restaurants to office parks to residential builders, city planners, gas station owners, rental car companies and more will be immediately and dramatically impacted. Companies of all sorts will need to pay attention and adapt their business to the quickly changing world to make sure they stay relevant in this AI-enabled future.