How Do Autonomous Cars Work And Are They Safe?

If you have never had the luxury of being chauffeured around to your destination, consider downloading a ridesharing app and give it go. It’s a novel thing. Kind of fun, even.

Still, it’s nice to be in your own car and in control again, especially if you have a bad driver. It can also be less expensive to own and operate your car.

So how can you combine the lower cost of owning a car without giving up on having a personal chauffeur when you don’t feel like driving?

That’s the promise of autonomous cars. Each day you will wake up, your car will pull itself out of the garage with the door open, and drive you to your destination. The vehicle will then either park itself, go run errands, or transport other people to their destination while earning you money.

We are still a ways off from enjoying all the proposed features of autonomous cars, but they are coming.

What Does Autonomous Tech Look Like?

There are six levels of autonomous tech, which breaks down like this:

  • Level Zero – There is no autonomous technology.
  • Level One – The car can maintain cruising speed with the car in front of it, stop the car to avoid an accident, and keep the vehicle centered in between the lines in the road.
  • Level Two – Advances on level one features, allowing the car to steer around sharper turns, make exits, stop at intersections, and steer to avoid accidents.
  • Levels Three – Input your destination on the navigation system and let the car drive itself; requires the driver to be ready to take over.
  • Level Four – Driver no longer required except under exceptional circumstances, such as weather or confusing geography; steering wheel and pedals remain in the car.
  • Level Five – Pedals and steering wheel are gone; driver and passenger not required.

All of these systems currently rely on a mix of cameras, radar, and AI to read the road and recognize other cars and obstacles. In the future, cars may even begin communicating, using real-time satellite data, and other means of information gathering to reach a destination more efficiently.

Many automotive brands offer level one autonomy features as an option or as a standard feature on some or all of their models. Level two features are more rare, with Tesla being the only automaker to see widespread adoption across their lineup.

Are Autonomy Features Safe?

Level one autonomous tech is useful for alerting inattentive drivers of a vehicle that has stopped or slowed, and helping to alleviate fatigue during long trips. On the other hand, when talking about Telsa and their more advanced autonomous tech, things get complicated.

If you have ever seen a video of someone asleep at the wheel of their Telsa, then you can understand the risks. Several people have already died by relying on their Tesla to drive itself, only to have the vehicle become confused by a situation outside of normal circumstances.

For example, one Tesla drove into a dividing barrier at highway speeds because it got confused by the road and couldn’t alert the driver to take over in time. Another driver was watching a movie on his portable DVD player and went under a tractor-trailer pulling out onto a dark road.

Then there was Uber’s attempt at a self-driving car that resulted in the death of a pedestrian who was jaywalking. The worst part is that there was someone behind the wheel of the vehicle, but they weren’t watching the road and didn’t take over to stop the vehicle before striking the person.

Largely, these incidents are outliers. For many brands, their level one autonomy features will deactivate if you take your hands off the wheel for too long. Other automakers, like Tesla, only need you to be seated in the front seat with the seatbelt buckled.

The other problem for Tesla is that they have been bold with their marketing claims around the technology. Their system is known as “Autopilot.” What would a driver think when purchasing and driving the car with a name like that? So when looking at accidents involving inattentive drivers, it could be suggested that Tesla’s marketing claims may have given a false sense of safety to drivers.

This is comparatively different from a company like Ford that refers to its technology as “Ford Driver Assist Technologies.” The idea here is to name the features so the driver knows that they are still responsible for operating the vehicle safely. This helps Ford to avoid any legal grey area that might leave the company vulnerable to a lawsuit if a crash did occur. Of course, salesmen should be educated and restricted from ever suggesting to potential customers that the system is more than a driving aid.

That’s not to say that once Ford deploys level two or three technology that they won’t make stronger claims about taking the driver out of the equation.

When Will Autonomous Tech Be Ready?

The market for self-driving cars could be worth trillions, and that means a lot of companies are jumping in to get to level five autonomy first. The problem is that driving is currently incredibly safe, with one death per every 100 million miles driven.

Will society accept if autonomous cars are slightly less safe because the benefits outweigh the risks?

If an autonomous car hits and kills someone, who is at fault? The owner of the car? The company that sold the car?

Then you have to think about the more philosophical questions. If traveling down the road and two people step out in front of the car from either side of the road, and the vehicle cannot possibly stop, which person does the car hit? If one person is old and one is young, might the car hit the older person? What if the older person is also pregnant? Might the car try to crash itself and kill its passenger to save the pedestrians?

We also didn’t even touch on the risk of a hacker taking control of a driverless car and intentionally hitting people.

These things are not easy to figure out. For now, there is good to be found with autonomous tech. Every day, the more miles that are put onto the cars, the more they improve.

For an aging population that can’t safely drive, autonomous cars could help them to maintain their independence. But, for truck drivers or those who make deliveries, these features will likely make their jobs obsolete.

This technology is new, and most drivers probably don’t even understand it. Acceptance of the risks may come when drivers experience it for themselves. Right now, this tech feels like putting our lives in the hands of an unfeeling robot that can’t be punished if it gets things wrong.

Hopefully, we will see major leaps in the development of this technology and reach a point where 100 percent of accidents are human error, proving that once you remove humans from the equation, the autonomous features simply work better. Eventually, our roads will be full of a generation of people who have never driven a car, and would never think to take control and risk causing an accident.