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Why is everybody eyeing fully autonomous cars?

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【Summary】It’s not new to see car makers and tech giants delving into driverless technology with fully autonomous capabilities. But before talking about the fullness of driverless technology, we need to understand the different levels of autonomy and why many companies aim for level 5 and skip level 3.

Original Claire    Jan 06, 2017 8:14 AM PT
Why is everybody eyeing fully autonomous cars?

It's not new to see car makers and tech giants delving into driverless technology with fully autonomous capabilities. Case in point: Google's Waymo. The company's ultimate goal is to design a car system that doesn't have pedals, a steering wheel and driver—completely in control by the vehicle instead of the passenger himself. 

But before talking about the fullness of driverless technology, we need to understand the different levels of autonomy and why many companies aim for level 5 and skip level 3. 

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA) defined five different levels of autonomous driving. And in October 2016, it updated the policy by adopting the levels of autonomy from a Society of Automotive Engineers' document, which are:

Level 0: The driver controls it all. From steering, braking, gas pedal and power—no different than your daily driving with a traditional car. 

Level 1: This level of driver assistance means a certain function (steering or accelerating) could be done automatically by the car, but most functions are done by the driver.

Level 2: Both steering and acceleration (such as cruise control and lane changing) are automated, meaning "the driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off the pedal at the same time." Yet, the driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle all the time. 

Level 3: The driver still needs to intervene in certain situations, but doesn't have to monitor the car like the previous level. However, in terms of emergency, there's a transferring of control from human to car. 

Level 4: This means "fully autonomous"—vehicles are "designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip." However, it might not cover every driving scenario. 

Level 5: The ultimate fully-autonomous system. The car could equal a driver's performance in every driving situation—inclement weather and dirt roads that are hardly navigated by driverless vehicles in the near future. 

To give you a better idea of such applications, Tesla's autopilot system is level 2 or 3, which caused quite a bit of controversy last year. In October 2016, Elon Musk claimed that all new Teslas to ship will be equipped with level-5 autonomous driving hardware. Google Waymo is planning to enter the market with level 4 to level 5 autonomous vehicles; however, the "fully driverless" system may still come with a steering wheel and brake pedals, as required by regulators.

Meanwhile Ford was among the first to announce in 2015 that it would skip level 3 and straightly go to the above in terms of designing an autonomous car system. "We're really focused on completing the work to fully take the driver out of the loop," Ken Washington, the automaker's head of research and advanced engineering, said at the time.

So why is everybody aiming for higher levels and trying to avoid level 3 autonomy? Because a partially autonomous car is in an embarrassing interim period. It might loosen a human driver's attention, while in emergencies it might not be able to handle the extreme situation and leave it to the human driver. Human drivers, however, are for the most part horrible backups. They are inattentive, easily distracted and slow to respond. 

"Having a human there to resume control is very difficult," says Bryan Reimer, an MIT researcher who studies driving behavior. To make a level-3 car, the system must provide visual, audio, and haptic alerts to get the person's attention. Meanwhile, it needs to make sure the autonomous technology is mature enough to handle any situation for 5 to 10 seconds needed for a human to realize what's happening and take control. 

"We're not going to ask the driver to instantaneously intervene—that's not a fair proposition," Jim McBride, autonomous vehicles expert at Ford, once said. He is focusing on getting Ford straight to level 4, as transferring control from car to human can often pose more difficulties. 

However, the levels of autonomy are often vaguely expressed by automakers and tech companies. Often when we see a caption of "driverless" and "autonomous system" we assume "fully-autonomous" without thinking too much about the level it is really at. 

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