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Level -Up! Steps to Autonomous Vehicles

By Katie McAuliffe, Andreas Hellmann | November 01, 2016

The idea of autonomous vehicles makes me think of Will Smith in iRobot, and maybe its not that far off.  By 2018 Audi expects to guide you through a traffic jam with way less hassle, and by 2021 BMW plans to have fully automated cars ready for public consumption.

These hands-free and brain-free options are not the first forms of automation in vehicles.  We've been using automation for quite a while.  Cruise control, parking assistance, and the like are earlier generations or levels of vehicle automation. 


There are different levels of automation:  

  • Level 0: Today’s driving - the driver is fully in charge.
  • Level 1: The driver may have the “feet off” the pedals, if using Cruise Control or “hands off” the steering wheel if using a Lane Keeping Assist system.
  • Level 2: The driver has both hands and the feet off while driving, but the eyes must always stay on the road.
  • Level 3: eyes off, but brain on (the driver must be able to take control instantly
  • Level 4: According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), vehicles at this level are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for the entire trip.”
  • Level 5: This stage simply means that the vehicle is fully autonomous and has no steering wheel or general controls for a human to use anymore.

It is important to distinguish the role of automated driving from the crash avoidance systems that are now available for commercial vehicles/ trucks and support the driver while he is still in charge of driving the vehicle. These systems assist the driver when something unusual is happening or are just monitoring the actions of the driver.


Automated vehicles take over the task of driving on behalf of the human driver. In practice, both the crash avoidance and the automation levels operate together and the automated driving is built on crash avoidance systems.


Automated control of brakes and throttle is not new to the industry. Automated throttle control became common starting in 1990, which eliminated the mechanical linkage to the engine. Radar-­based adaptive cruise control systems were first launched in 2008 in the car sector and over 100,000 trucks drive with adaptive cruise control today.

Building on this technology the focus is now on more advanced and complicated systems expected to be released to the market within the next five years and will be a real part of mobility in the near future. Such as more advanced and reliable lane keeping, cruise and speed control systems that can even drive on different roads and speeds, not only on highways.



Estimated Global Amount of Cars with Self-Driving Features Estimated Global Amount of Cars with Self-Driving Features



2018 Audi pledges to be the first carmaker to introduce Level 3 autonomy to the road with its next generation A8 top model. The Audi A8 will debut Audi's Traffic Jam Pilot system. It will handle accelerating, braking and steering up to 35 mph. However, there are many parameters and limitations to engaging Traffic Jam Pilot. It will need to have no fewer than two cars ahead of it and it will need to recognize, based upon information GPS and other outward-facing sensors that it is on a freeway. Its cameras will also detect whether the road is clear enough for ideal operation. It won't be activated on a snow-covered road, for example.

The car will also require specific driver conditions before Traffic Jam Pilot can be engaged, too. It will need to detect a driver in the driver's seat. What's more, the car will include a camera-based driver awareness system that will look to see if the driver is awake.

2021 Marking its 100th birthday earlier this year, BMW announced that it has also pegged 2021 as the year during which it will unveil a fully autonomous car. It's called iNext and not only will it be autonomous, it will also be intelligent, lightweight and the "next generation of electro-mobility," according to BMW chairman of the board Harald Krüger.

The flagship iNext autonomous car will be created in collaboration with Intel and MobilEye. Although BMW has not yet specified any other dates for unveiling autonomous driving systems for its cars, the trio (BMW, Intel and MobilEye) have said they will create platform-based "future-proof" test cars by 2017 in order to hit the stated 2021 goal. This platform will tackle, as BMW puts it, "'eyes off' (Level 3), 'mind off' level (Level 4)" 'driver off' (Level 5)."

It feels like a natural progression: manual, automatic, autonomous (hyperloop?), and there are a lot of cogs in the wheel.  Not just the individual computer systems of cars, but there is also the network that supports them.  Smart aleck cities want to talk back and so will nearly all the things we carry. Free airwaves for communicating are already a rarity. Perhaps battery technology has held back innovation in the past, but an airwave shortage may hold back innovation of the future.


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