Transport of the Future

Are We There Yet? Understanding Autonomous

Written by Shelly Duncan

I was slow to learn to drive – not getting my license until I was 24, which as a child growing up n the 70’s and 80’s was virtually unheard of!

Most kids were down to the cop station (yep – no RMS or DMV for us) the day they could legally get their license.

So I am totally not surprised that I am also not that keen to jump into self-driving cars – autonomous vehicles – either. But despite the hype and aggressive campaigns by various car manufacturers, I don’t actually think it is something I will need to worry about on a day to day basis for some time yet.

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And here’s why I believe why this is the case

Autonomous means different things and there are varying levels of autonomy in driving. To make things easier there is a broad acceptance across the auto industry, of six levels – ranging from absolutely zero to not even requiring a driver in the car.

Level Zero – No Automation

This is exactly as it says – not one hint of automation about it. The driver is responsible for everything – not a computer chip in site. Not even ABS breaking or Power steering. The old heavy cars with a stick gear we learned to drive in – or in my case throwing my hands up at my father storming out of the car screaming “what do you want from me”.

The driver is in full control

Level One – Driver Assistance

It would be hard to find even a basic car these days, which has been manufactured in the last 10 years that doesn’t have at least one Level One feature.

Think Power Steering, ABS breaking and Cruise Control. Basic automated functions that help you drive the car, stay in your lane, not reverse into things.

The driver is still realistically in full control, but driving is made a bit easier

Level Two – Partial Automation

Level Two vehicles can control multiple aspects such as both speed and steering at the same time and change adaptively (as opposed to Level ones “set and hopefully don’t forget”)

However this automation works only under what is considered normal conditions and the driver must remain alert and ready to intervene at any point.

Tesla’s “autopilot” is an example of Level Two

The driver relinquishes some control but must be alert and monitoring conditions at all times

Level Three – Conditional Automation

Level Three is a step up in that the vehicle is able to do much of the monitoring, though the driver must be ready to take control (sorry no Netflix or snoozing on this trip).

This level of automation works pretty well for highway driving and normal conditions, however, I’ve heard a lot of feedback that in urban areas the vehicles are prone to get a bit more confused and often “take a guess” on what action to take.

The driver must still be ready to take control at a moments notice.

Level Four – High Automation

Level four vehicles do all the driving – though a human may take over if required. Technically you could not pay attention – ie sleep read or catch up on your favourite re-runs. However the car will only work in automated mode in normal conditions so sever weather for instance would require intervention. Now I have my doubts about how quick a reaction time someone engrossed in the Kardashian’s will have if they need to take over in an emergency.. but that’s a whole other post.

Ultimately the driver is still responsible – which brings in the whole question of liability and this will be a topic we explore in the not too distant future.

Level Five – Full Automation

This is the nirvana of autonomous vehicles – a car that does not even require a driver within it. It can drive under any and all conditions – humans are literally just along for the ride.

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There is of course full automation in some cases of mass transit – metro rail systems and airport shuttles for instance, but cars on the roads making their own decisions is an entirely different proposition. And one that might be just a little scary.

So the challenges with reaching full automation should be starting to become clear. And I don’t actually think its the technology itself that will be the main handbrake. In fact, most of the hardware and software technology is already available to theoretically do this.

  1. Testing for every possibility and condition is difficult, leaving manufacturers not as confident in level five autonomy for their vehicles. Most are instead focussed on achieving level four
  2. City infrastructure needs to be reconsidered to accommodate autonomous vehicles.
  3. Different levels of Autonomous vehicles playing together. Let’s face it everyone isn’t going to have a car with the same level all at the same time.
  4. Public acceptance. People are still fearful around the safety of an autonomous vehicle, particularly in light of highly publicised accidents.
  5. Liability. To me, this is the big one. Once the requirement for a licensed driver is removed from the vehicle it stands to reason the liability falls back to the manufacturer.

So in summary, I believe that while there will be increasing levels of autonomous vehicles gracing our roads, the aggressive timelines of the manufacturers are somewhat of a pipe dream. In fact we are already seeing them being scaled back. A level of autonomy will certainly come (and in fact is already here). But full autonomy still has a number of challenges to overcome.

Giving me plenty of time to get used to the idea!


One of my favourite podcasts on this topic is by Mark Pesce – The Next Billion Cars. He has a great episode discussing the levels of Autonomous Vehicles. You can listen to it here

How long until we have self-driving cars? That’s the biggest question confronting the entire transportation sector. Autonomy unlocks a lot of amazing possibilities – but what is it, really, and how far away?

About the author

Shelly Duncan

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