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How far away do you think we are from the future of autonomous driving, when most of the cars on the road will be self-driving and drivers will feel welcome to relax and set their mind to something else (as long as they stay behind the wheel)? Would you guess 50, 75, maybe 100 years? Or 10, 15, 20? What if we told you it’s even sooner than that? Would you believe the future of autonomous driving in fact could even be… today?

Well, pretty close at least. If not today, tomorrow for sure. But which one is it?

Before we answer that question, did you know that the average American spends about 55 minutes each day commuting to and from work? Wouldn’t it be nice to get that time back? Would that time perhaps be better served doing something like getting ready for the day, eating breakfast, or just relaxing on social media while on your way to the store? Well, automated vehicles offer that promise. Automated vehicles can handle the driving for you while you do, practically, whatever you want.

What Is An Automated (aka Autonomous) Car, Anyway?

An automated car- sometimes called “autonomous vehicles”, which means something a bit different but we’ll get to that- are self-driving vehicles that don’t truly drive themselves. At least, not yet. Rather, they have complex computer systems that take constant precise measurements of road conditions using multiple sensors that together form a synthetic “neural network”, of sorts. By capturing so much information and reviewing it with powerful central processors, automated vehicles are able to make some decisions far faster than a human can. Machine learning systems are necessary to process so much data, and powerful computer components are needed to power the hardware, and all combined they make for versatile and efficient machines that can make a driver’s life much easier, and much safer too.

The Levels of Vehicle Autonomy

Not all self-driving cars are built alike. There are actually many different levels of “vehicle autonomy” that can be installed to assist drivers, but at this time most use only level 2: Partial Automation. We’ll explain partial automation in a moment, along with the difference between “Autonomous” and “Automated”, but let’s start with the first level of vehicle autonomy:

Level 0 – No Automation

This one’s fairly self-explanatory (pun-intended). Like the car you likely drove today, non-automated cars do not drive themselves or offer any assistance features like hazard detection.

Level 1 – Driver Assistance

Most cars today offer a simple form of automation: cruise control. It may not be much, but anyone who’s been on a long drive knows the value of even this simple feature. Once enabled, the car will maintain its speed- and thus its distance too- so you can focus on the road more. This is crude automation, but automation nonetheless.

Level 2 – Partial Automation

Partial automation is when we get into the real stuff, including advanced driver assistance systems that monitor the road for hazards and react faster than a human could. Of course, a driver is always behind the wheel even with partial automation. Most new cars today offer partial-automated safety systems and so fall into this class of vehicle automation. As a fringe benefit, these types of vehicles often result in reduced auto insurance premiums, for what it’s worth (money).

Level 3 – Conditional Automation

Now we’re getting futuristic. Conditional automation actually takes control from the human driver under certain conditions, like road hazards or slow traffic. When certain criteria are met, a self-driving truck for example may speed up or even change lanes, and not always because something bad is happening. Sometimes these features offer increased efficiency that aren’t easily perceptible, but which add up over the long term, especially under long haul trucking conditions. However, human intervention is always in play even if relevant conditions are met. Still, the driver keeps control, most of the time.

Level 4 – High Automation

These are true self-driving vehicles, like the self-driving cars companies like Alphabet (Google) and Tesla keep promising for the future. In fact, they are already on the road and traveling the countryside as we speak, albeit with human drivers behind the wheel at all times in order to intervene if anything happens. These types of self-driving vehicles actually do typically drive themselves, including under normal and hazardous conditions, changing lanes and speed as they see fit. But again, always with a human behind the wheel.

Level 5 – Full Automation

Fully automated self-driving cars are driverless cars. Basically, robot cars. They don’t need people and likely won’t have them, or even have room for people to be inside. Why waste space when that could be used for storage? Fully automated vehicles- aka “drones”- will likely still have remote operators and other safety features to prevent problems, but they may not even have a standard driver at all, let alone passengers. Companies like Amazon and Dominos already use fully-automated vehicles, though they aren’t road-based cars. They’re drones. And one day those drones will be on roads, too.

Level X – Autonomous Car

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Chico Tesla Repair

Most often we refer to them as autonomous vehicles, but technically they’re “automated” vehicles. While an “automated” car is a car with artificial intelligence, an “autonomous” car is actually a sentient car that can think, feel emotions, and make its own decisions. Maybe it gives you directions, maybe it helps fix your relationship with your estranged brother, or maybe it helps you fight crime. Not unlike Knight Rider, or even The Transformers. Perhaps like Transformers even autonomous cars could still have people inside, but they’ll probably want to get out before any transforming happens…

Who Currently Makes Autonomous Vehicles?

Perhaps the most popular automated driver currently on the market is the Autopilot feature offered in vehicles manufactured by Tesla. Although far from perfect, they’ve perhaps had the widest real-world use so far. Many people have already had the opportunity to try Tesla’s automated driving offerings, and many have already been caught doing stupid things like falling asleep inside them. While this is certainly ill-advised today, ironically it is nonetheless the end goal after all, to be able to leave a vehicle unattended while it drives us automatically to our destination even if we’re asleep.

Other companies that are building automated driving into their vehicles include Mercedes, Nissan, and BMW. Then there are third parties that offer AI-assisted driving platforms to be installed into original equipment manufacturers’ (OEM’s) vehicles, or even consumer vehicles. These companies and their products includes Aurora’s Driver, Cruise’s Origin, and Alphabet’s Waymo; Alphabet is the parent company of Google.

Meanwhile, companies outside of auto manufacturing are offering autonomous vehicle services that meet specific consumer needs. These include Uber’s self-driving passenger transport vehicles and Domino’s self-driving pizza delivery car. Add in the trucking and distribution industry’s inevitable turn towards automation and it seems automated driving taking over the roads is inevitable. In fact, Morgan Stanley predicts that commercial autonomous vehicles may be available from OEM dealers in as little as 5 years.

But Can We Trust The Robots?

While many people are rightfully concerned about the reliability of automated and driverless vehicles, studies show that they’re much safer than their human counterparts. 94% of accidents are due to human error, says NHTSA.gov. By removing the human element from the whole, it may in fact reduce accidents by such a degree as to be reasonably astonishing. Even if we reduce that number only a quarter, that would be a huge reduction in fatalities and injuries relative to manually operated automobiles.

Nonetheless, there are some reasonable concerns about automated vehicles from a technological standpoint. For example, with so many self-driving vehicles on the road throwing their invisible lasers and radiowaves around, it’s plausible that conflicting LIDAR and Radar signals could cause trouble. Additionally, external factors like weather conditions, accidents, and poor maintenance will all effect sensors in some way. Then, traffic conditions and regional laws add yet another layer for computers to process on the fly, adding to their complexity and thus increasing the possibility of failure. On top of all that, still no one’s sure how to handle liability insurance when it comes to automated vehicles. Who is at fault when a robot causes an accident?

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Finally, there are some other serious security concerns to take into account: all computers can be hacked, controlled, damaged, ransomed, or otherwise maliciously manipulated. I doubt anyone will buy a computer car again after their first one drives away from them at the supermarket, all the while doing burnouts and honking like it’s Need for Speed. Serious regulatory framework will be necessary before mass adoption is a real possibility, but legislators are already doing what little work they do to get this framework set out… eventually.

So Is The Future Today, or Is The Future Tomorrow?

You may not know anyone yet who’s using automated vehicle technology akin to what you might see in a sci-fi movie, but it’s only a matter of time and probably just a few years at that. When you do have a chance, will you get into an automated vehicle and let it drive you home after work? What if it’s autonomous and tells you fun jokes and helps your kids with their math homework and such? Needless to say, there are many benefits to automated driving that are yet to be appreciated by the public, but if you look, you can certainly find many examples of vehicles today that already use automated driving technology to improve daily driving.

So we say, what appears to be the future-tomorrow of automated driving, is in fact the future-today.

What are your thoughts on AI vehicles and automated driverless trucks and cars? Do you like the idea of a robot driving you home drunk from the bar, or should they keep the robots off our streets? Share your opinion and comment below!

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