Imagine for a moment that you’ve planned a weekend road trip that will take approximately three hours to get from point A to point B. Three hours is a significant amount of time behind the wheel. It’s enough to watch a movie or put a pretty big dent in that novel you’ve been meaning to read. Or you could catch up on work emails and crank out reports via your work laptop.
Think about how nice it would be if you could use your driving time for more than just sitting and steering. With the rollout of self-driving cars, that fantasy is closer than ever to becoming a reality. The concept of the multi-tasking driver is on the horizon, thanks to advancements in autonomous driving technology. In fact, there are several online videos showcasing self-driving cars in action.
So, what can drivers expect in the near future? When can we predict self-driving vehicles will be among the new cars for sale in Houston the next time you hit your local dealership? Let’s review what we know so far.
Breaking Down the SAE Levels of Autonomous Driving
Autonomous driving technology isn’t a “yes” or “no” issue. It’s actually more of a scale. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE International) is the leading authority on autonomous driving technology, having broken things down into six specific levels. They include:
SAE Level 0: The driver must actively supervise the vehicle, even when support features are engaged. The features are limited to providing momentary assistance (ex: automatic emergency braking) and providing warnings (ex: blind spot warning).
SAE Level 1: The driver must actively supervise the vehicle, even when support features are engaged. The features provide brake/acceleration support (ex: adaptive cruise control) or steering support (ex: lane centering).
SAE Level 2: The driver must actively supervise the vehicle, even when support features are engaged. The features provide brake/acceleration support and steering support.
SAE Level 3: The driver is not actively controlling the vehicle when the automated driving features are engaged. Autonomous driving can only operate the vehicle under limited conditions. The feature included at this level is a traffic jam chauffeur, allowing drivers to be hands-off during stop-and-go traffic scenarios.
SAE Level 4: The driver is not actively controlling the vehicle when the automated driving features are engaged. Autonomous driving can only operate the vehicle under limited conditions. The features included at this level include local driverless taxis and autonomous pedals/steering wheel (if installed).
SAE Level 5: Fully autonomous driving technology that requires no human intervention under any circumstances. It can drive in any city or highway scenario.
Essentially, the self-driving mode doesn’t feel truly autonomous until around SAE Level 4. Manufacturing vehicles that are capable of Level 3 operations and beyond is the current challenge for automakers.
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Brands That Currently Have Some Level of Autonomous Driving Technology
Don’t get your hopes up too much. No automaker has cracked the code yet on a production-ready SAE Level 5 vehicle fit for human passengers. In fact, the majority of automakers are hanging out in the Level 2 tier. The self-driving technologies by the brand include:
- Tesla AutoPilot
- General Motors SuperCruise
- Ford BlueCruise
- Kia Highway Assist
- Hyundai Highway Assist
- Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot
- BMW Driver Assistance Pro
- Volkswagen IQ. Assist
- Nissan ProPILOT Assist
- Toyota Safety Sense 3.0
As you can see, virtually every major player in the automobile world has some form of autonomous driving technology in the works. Although Tesla likely has the most name recognition in the category, they aren’t as far along as people believe.
Most automakers have rolled out lane tracing and adaptive cruise control features on their vehicles, which allows for some degree of hands-off driving and automated response. However, drivers must keep their hands on the wheel and their feet near the pedals while these autonomous features are engaged.
The broad reality is that much more testing needs to be done before autonomous driving technology is anywhere close to being deemed finalized. Too many flaws in the technology have been revealed and too many accidents have occurred, mainly as a result of system glitches or a failure by drivers to intervene when needed.
Which Automaker Is Closest to Reaching SAE Level 5?
In March 2023, Volkswagen showcased its Gen.Travel concept at Chantilly Arts & Elegance, which is located near Paris, France. The Gen.Travel is what VW is referring to as an Innovation Experience Vehicle (IEV), which they are claiming is a true prototype vehicle that’s capable of SAE Level 5 autonomous driving.
The goal with this vehicle is that it will effectively replace what airlines refer to as short-haul flights, which are flights that take three hours or less. Gen.Travel will provide travelers with a much more relaxed and private experience in comparison to dealing with a typical flight.
Currently, there are some videos that showcase the design and features of the VW Gen.Travel, but nothing as of yet establishes proof of concept of SAE Level 5 autonomous driving. The expectation is that this footage will be released in 2023 once they’ve done more testing in controlled environments. Tesla has racked up some bad press due to autonomous driving-related accidents; it appears VW is trying to avoid making that mistake by proceeding with caution.