By Lori Melton
Automakers around the globe are pushing to lead the race toward filling our highways with autonomous (aka self-driving) cars. Per the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration (NHTSA) data, 37,133 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. 2017. Car companies are aiming to make roadways safer by making autonomous vehicles to take people anywhere and everywhere they need to go. Does this kind of technology still seem like something we would see in a sci-fi movie? Or, are affordable self-driving cars in our near future?
Understanding Self-Driving Levels
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) classifies self-driving vehicles via five defined automation levels. At Level 0, a human driver is driving the car. At Level 1 and Level 2, a human driver is assisted by autonomous vehicle features like steering, brake and gas support or adaptive cruise control. At Level 3, automated driving features can pilot the vehicle under limited conditions. The same for Level 4, but gas and brake pedals and a steering wheel may or may not be installed. At Level 5, the car is fully autonomous under all driving conditions.
Waymo Hits Self-Driving Milestone
Waymo launched in 2009 as the Google self-driving project. The company started its autonomous journey with the Toyota Prius and fulfilled an initial goal to drive 10 non-stop 100-mile routes. In nearly a decade, Waymo has logged millions of miles and completed months of self-driving testing. In 2017, the company added Chrysler Pacifica minivans to its autonomous fleet and allowed early riders to join the project and provide feedback on their experience.
Earlier this month, Waymo launched the first-ever autonomous commercial ride-share service called Waymo One. The new service operates in the Greater Phoenix area, and 400 people who were previous early riders were chosen to participate. Waymo considers this new milestone a huge step in its journey to bring this convenient service to the public. Riders coordinate their Waymo One rides via an app (like scheduling Uber or Lyft rides). With the number of miles and almost 10 years of self-driving under its belt, Waymo is aggressive in its autonomous mission.
Other car companies are pursuing self-driving technology, including GM via the Cruise Automation platform. GM President Dan Ammann told Reuters in an interview developing safe automated vehicles “the engineering challenge of our generation,” adding, “right now we are in a race to the starting line.”
GM teamed with SoftBank in Japan and Honda to try and hit autonomous targets. Like its competitors, GM is working out issues and putting safety first, which offsets its self-driving goals. The company still has goals to release an autonomous fleet in 2019.
Toyota is also pushing to have automated cars in circulation by 2020. Toyota Research Institute CEO Gill Pratt thinks the Level 5 autonomy is not yet within close reach in the industry. However, he feels several companies will achieve Level 4 in the next decade.
In a press statement last month, Daimler and Bosch announced plans for using San Jose, California as a pilot city for testing SAE Level 4/5 automated Mercedes Benz S-class vehicles in the second half of 2019. Ford announced intentions to have an SAE Level 4 vehicle in 2021, notably without a gas pedal or steering wheel. Honda’s hope, in teaming with Waymo, is to fulfill its mission “to put production vehicles with automated driving capabilities on highways sometime around 2020.”
Self-driving vehicles are obviously a focus for multiple automakers as we approach the next decade. However, extensive testing, working out existing kinks, refining technology and funding R & D may arguably put wide-scale mass production of self-driving vehicles farther out than any manufacturer is currently projecting.