Waymo, a spin-off company of Google, has announced today that they will be offering rides to the public in unmanned, self-driving cars. They’ve been testing this taxi service privately since mid-October, and are ready to take the project to the next level.
Whoa. Let that sink in.
Self-driving cars are, to a lot of people, in the “way-far future” of transportation, along the lines of flying cars and a Siri that works well. But today, if you’re a part of Waymo’s Early Riders Program and live within 100 miles of Chandler, Arizona (a suburb of Phoenix), then you can call a Waymo car instead of an Uber or Lyft, and your ride might not have a driver.
But what is a self-driving car, really? Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and SAE (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers), the two largest authorities of classifications on American roads, have nearly identical systems that break a self-driving car down into levels. Here’s their six-level scheme:
- Yes, zero first. This means absolutely no autonomy. A human must do all of the work. You might be thinking that this is what most cars have now, but most cars are actually beyond this.
- Level one is the most basic autonomy; a car can maintain its speed if you tell it to. Basically, a car with level one autonomy had cruise control. Your car is almost certainly equipped with this level-one autonomy. It’s industry standard at this point.
- Level two autonomy is where things start to get interesting, because it’s the lowest level where the car must act without instruction from a human. This can be thought of as “advanced cruise control,” in that a car at level two isn’t really driving itself. It can, however, generally maintain speed while also being able to stay in a lane, slow down for traffic, and brake to avoid obstacles. The most popular brand of cars to have this is Tesla, which has all of its cars equipped with a system called Autopilot. Autopilot is a level two autonomy, and can drive itself on a highway or a road. But if you need to make a turn or change roads or lanes, then it’s on the driver to do so.
- Level three autonomy is the next logical step up from level two; cars can generally follow a set of rules on a single road. It can do all of level two, but can also change lanes and pass cars, as well as give alerts for when its own sensors for tracking the world are questionable or failing. As of right now, there aren’t very many companies building or developing cars for level three. They’re all headed up to the next rung on the ladder.
- Level four autonomy is what you’re probably imagining when you think of a “self-driving car” right now. This is a car that you can drop on the roads now, and will basically do everything. If you give it a destination, it will take you there. It can follow paths, track traffic, make turns and deal with complex intersections, and can basically do all of the other things that a human driver would normally do as it relates to driving. All of this has a caveat, though; it really only works in a restricted area, a “safe zone” for the car. It should be a reasonably flat area that’s seen a lot of data in information so that the computers in these cars can know what the area looks like and how to deal with obstacles. The Waymo cars that are being released in Arizona are of this level.
- This is the dream of the self-driving car. Waymo has a few of these in development, and various automotive makers have concept cars that fit the level five autonomy standard, but these kinds of cars on the road are still a hot minute away from invading our roads. These cars are distinct in one key way; no human backup. Every other level of autonomy still has the familiar controls of every car so that a human could, at any moment, take over the driving. Not level five cars (if you can even call them “cars” at that point). These vehicles have no input method other than entering your desired destination. There are no restrictions, no caveats. They just take you there.
This all sounds great—and it is. Human error is the cause of almost every single accident that’s ever happened on the roads, and that would be gone. Studies show that if autonomous cars became the only cars on the road, that accidents could almost disappear, speed limits could increase or be lifted entirely, and traffic throughput could be improved by as much as 300%. This is a massive improvement for roads. While there are still lots of regulations and ethical debates to be had about whether or not self-driving cars are ready to replace cars, autonomous driving isn’t on the horizon of the future anymore; it’s here to stay.
Read up on Google Waymo, and all autonomous driving news here: