Self-Driving Cars: Most Auto Makers Want Human to Stay in the Equation; Why Ford, Google and Uber Don’t

If automobile and technology majors worldwide stick to their projected schedule, we should be having first of the self driving cars out on the roads by 2020-2021. Most companies partaking in autonomous cars like Waymo (Google), Uber, Tesla, Ford, Toyota, GM, Daimler, Audi, Volvo, etc. are working around this timeline.


However, the levels of autonomy of the self driving cars coming from each of these stables differ. It will be worthwhile to first understand what the different levels of autonomy are.


Automotive standardization body, SAE International, has defined levels of driving automation for on-road vehicles. SAE J3016 standard defines six levels of driving automation.


·      Level 0 – No Automation: The full-time performance by the human driver of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even when enhanced by warning or intervention systems. 

·      Level 1 – Driver Assistance: The driving mode-specific execution by a driver assistance system of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver performs all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task.

·      Level 2 – Partial Automation: The driving mode-specific execution by one or more driver assistance systems of both steering and acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver performs all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task.

·      Level 3 – Conditional Automation: The driving mode-specific performance by an Automated Driving System of all aspects of the dynamic driving task with the expectation that the human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene.

·      Level 4 – High Automation: The driving mode-specific performance by an Automated Driving System of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene.

·      Level 5 – Full Automation: The full-time performance by an Automated Driving System of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver.


Today most of the companies offer level 1 automation with level 2 automation to some limited extent being offered in some of the highly premium models. Many automakers are already introducing driver-assist features like advanced cruise control, in which cars detect when they are approaching other vehicles and modify speed. A case in point is Tesla’s Autopilot, in which a human driver is expected to keep his or her eyes and attention on the road while a system conducts most aspects of the driving.

What the companies are hoping to achieve over the next 2-4 years with their self driving cars projects is autonomy levels that range between level 2 and level 4 and systems in this range are currently being tested extensively by the companies globally to validate the technology. As Level 4 vehicles become more capable and able to handle a greater variety of conditions, they will evolve into fully automated Level 5 vehicles.


Navigant Research in its study on Autonomous Vehicles has outlined the evolution of the market for autonomous vehicles over the next few years. It expects first introductions of highly automated light duty vehicles (LDVs) to begin in 2020, with steady growth anticipated beginning in 2025.


Sales of vehicles of Level 2 through Level 4 autonomy are projected to grow from 14 million annually in 2020 (about 15% of annual car sales globally) to around 72 million annually in 2025 (about 70% of the total LDVs expected to be sold in 2025). By the mid-2020s, it is expected that more than 245 million vehicles with at least Level 2 autonomous capability will be on the road globally. Annual sales of vehicles with Level 4 autonomy are expected to approach 5 million units by 2025. By mid-2030s, around 85 million self-driving vehicles are expected to be sold every year, and more than 20% of the world’s vehicles will be expected to be able to operate without a human driver.


Level 3 or No Level 3


Now, let’s understand at what autonomy levels are the different companies playing.


The industry is broadly divided between two approaches. One is to develop vehicles that are fully self-driving from the outset, i.e. level 4 and 5, and skip level 2 and 3 altogether. The other is a more conservative step-by-step approach. Google’s autonomous vehicle spin-off, Waymo and Uber fall in the first category. Among the automakers, Ford and Volvo have decided to the take this approach too. On other hand, majority of the automakers like GM, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Honda and Audi are working on a gradualist approach by first going with level 2 and 3 before getting to level 4 and 5.


Toyota is divided in its approach, choosing both paths for research purposes, examining both a Guardian mode that augments human driving and a Chauffeur approach that conducts true driverless operations.


The reason for some companies ditching level 3 (where cars are automated, but human drivers are still expected to take over if need be) altogether is because of the difficulty of the ‘handoff’—getting the person behind the wheel to take control at a moment's notice. The time taken for the changeover from automated to human driving needs to be instantaneous. However, when not paying attention constantly one is likely to lose focus, which will likely create a time lag in the human taking over the driving from the automated system once it requests the driver to take over.


For Ford the decision was reportedly taken in the wake of test drives, wherein the engineers monitoring the robot rides were dozing off when not having to pay any attention to driving. As per the report, company researchers tried to rouse the engineers with bells, buzzers, warning lights, vibrating seats and shaking steering wheels. They even put a second engineer in the vehicle to keep tabs on his human counterpart. The smooth ride was just too lulling and engineers struggled to maintain situational awareness. According to Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief, “It’s human nature that you start trusting the vehicle more and more and that you feel you don’t need to be paying attention.”


Volvo Cars CEO was quoted as saying that a person at rest or distracted by e-mail or entertainment can’t be expected to quickly take the wheel and save the day. Others contend that asking an inattentive human to respond in seconds to a life-or-death situation is a recipe for disaster.


According to Wired, it was a game of Dots that pushed Erik Coelingh, Volvo's head of safety and driver assist technologies to re-think the entire approach to self-driving cars. Here is an excerpt from the Wired article on what turned the tables in favor of full autonomy for the company.


He was in a simulator, iPad in hand, swiping this way and that as the "car" drove itself, when he heard an alert telling him to take the wheel. He found the timing less than opportune.


"They gave the message when I was close to getting a high score," he says. Jolted away from the absorbing task, he had no idea of what was happening on the "road," or how to handle it. "I just realized," he says, "it's not so easy to put the game away."


The experience helped confirm a thesis Coelingh and Volvo had been testing: A car with any level of autonomy that relies upon a human to save the day in an emergency poses almost insurmountable engineering, design, and safety challenges, simply because humans are for the most part horrible backups. They are inattentive, easily distracted, and slow to respond. "That problem's just too difficult," Coelingh says.


With these companies taking the human completely out of the equation, as Waymo CEO, John Krafcik says, “Level 3 may turn out to be a myth.”


On the other hand, the advocates of level 3 justify the need for a human backup for safety and to allow consumers to become comfortable with technology that will eventually take the wheel from their hands.


Even as the debate around ‘level 3 or ‘No level 3’ continues, self-driving cars that would meet the requirements for full level 5 are still theoretical at this point. This is where the car can handle all driving tasks and go anywhere - no human, no steering wheel, no pedals.


Gill Pratt, the CEO of Toyota Research Institute reportedly said at the Consumer Electronics Show last year that full level 5 autonomy was far in the future. “We’re not even close to the breakthroughs necessary for full autonomy. It’ll take many years and many more miles, in simulated and real world testing, to achieve the perfection required for level 5 autonomy,” he was quoted as saying.


Ultimately, whether the approach to keep the human completely out of the picture will become clearer by 2020, by when the results of the trials conducted by both the opposing parties become more apparent.

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