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Self-driving cars, also called autonomous vehicles or driverless cars, are cars and trucks that can understand and navigate the environment with little to no help from a human driver. While consumers cannot yet buy a car that fully drives itself (Level 4 or 5 automation), the technology is under development and improving quickly. The self-driving cars being worked on today have many different sensors and cameras to capture information about the world and rely on computer vision, machine learning, and many other programs to interpret and react to that information. The goal is to create cars that are safe, perhaps even safer than human drivers, and efficient.

self-driving prototype car
The many sensors and cameras needed to gather information about the environment during autonomous driving can easily be seen on this self-driving car prototype from Google. (Photo credit: Ed and Eddie)

There are five different levels of automation:

  • Level 0: No automation; a human does all the driving.
  • Level 1: An advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) helps a human driver by either steering or braking/accelerating in simple situations like when using adaptive cruise control.
  • Level 2: An ADAS does a lot of the steering and braking/accelerating, but a human driver needs to be ready to take over at any moment.
  • Level 3: An automated driving system (ADS) is capable enough of driving the car in limited situations that a human driver can safely do other tasks (like text or watch a movie) until the car signals that the human driver should take over.
  • Level 4: An ADS controls all of the driving, and no driver is needed, but the car can only operate in a limited geographical area. The self-driving car acts like a robotic taxi.
  • Level 5: No human driver is needed, and the ADS can safely operate the driverless car regardless of location, weather, and time of day.
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