Autonomous driving has moved from the realm of science fiction to a very real possibility during the past twenty years, largely due to rapid developments of radar technology and microprocessor capacity. Portable technology has sufficiently advanced to allow ultra-light hardware to make decisions based on self-improving algorithms, which means that developers stand a better chance of replicating the real-time decision-making of humans in autonomous cars.
Autonomous vehicles have been under development since the mid-twentieth century. Stanford engineering student, James Adams, first developed a fully autonomous lunar rover in 1961. Private corporations developed other autonomous vehicles and unmanned aircraft in the following years, but the technology remained a niche until Tesla launched Autopilot in its Model S sedan in 2015. Designed to navigate roads, exits, and stop-and-go traffic with minimal driver involvement, Autopilot marked the first time that high-level autonomous technology reached the hands of mass-market consumers.
Today’s autonomous vehicles use a combination of forward-facing cameras and radar systems that collect relevant information about road conditions for further processing. These systems can learn to detect, classify, and assign ‘weights’ to road obstacles, thereby giving the vehicle’s processors enough information to choose the path of least resistance. The values for these ‘weights’ correspond to how devastating an impact with a given object would be. Critically, each ‘weight’ is arbitrary, and the developers’ personal judgments play a profound role in how an autonomous vehicle will behave.
To keep pace with the rapid development of autonomy, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE International) developed six levels for autonomous vehicles, with level 0 indicating no automation at all, and level 5 indicating full autonomy, only requiring the entry of a destination. Tesla’s AutoPilot corresponds approximately to level 2 automation, while Audi is reportedly ready to see its level 3 autonomous car (an A8 luxury saloon enabled with the Traffic Jam Pilot), but is awaiting legal approval in many countries, including the UK and the USA. There are no level 4 or 5 autonomous cars available to the public, but the race for full autonomy is in force among car manufacturers such as Tesla and Audi, and technology companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Google’s Waymo.