We’ve all heard about self-driving cars, right? But surely they’re still years away from being a reality, aren’t they? Well, maybe not. There are plenty of vehicles on sale right now that can do a passable impression of being autonomous, and this is our run-down of the best examples. But first…
THE LEVELS OF AUTONOMY
You might have heard mention of Level 0/1/2/3/4/5 autonomy before now and wondered what they mean. Well, in essence, Level 0 is a standard old car in which the driver must do everything, and Level 5 is the futuristic dream of getting in something like a Johnnycab from Total Recall and simply being driven to your location by a wealth of systems, camera, radar and AI control. But, for the sake of clarity:
Level 0 – a car with no autonomous technology at all. This doesn’t mean no safety systems whatsoever, though, as it may possess a forward collision warning (but not autonomous emergency braking), cruise control or lane departure warning (but not lane-keep assist); it just simply has no way of controlling any of the steering, acceleration (re-engaging cruise control notwithstanding) or braking.
Level 1 – cars with one or more systems that can intervene to brake, steer or accelerate the car to mitigate the effects of a potential accident, but the systems do not work in tandem with one another. Examples of tech that makes a vehicle Level 1 include adaptive (radar) cruise control, autonomous emergency braking (now almost a pre-requisite for EuroNCAP testing on all new cars) and lane-keep assist (actively steers you back into your lane, rather than merely warning you when you’re about to unintentionally wander out of it).
Level 2 – as above but these vehicles can simultaneously control speed and steering, without driver intervention, for short periods. An example of this technology would be Volvo’s Pilot Assist feature, which is radar cruise control coupled to lane-keep assist, and which will keep the car at a set speed and in its lane for a brief period of time, although it will quickly ask the driver to put their hands back on the steering wheel if it detects that someone is deliberately driving ‘hands off’ in order to showboat to their passengers. Pretty much all the cars we’re going to mention below are Level 2 autonomous, although some (like the Audi A8) claim to have the software installed onboard to be upgraded to Level 3 autonomy, as and when changes in the law allow such a thing.
Level 3 – this is the level that most manufacturers believe will be widespread and possible, from a legislative point of view, in the very near future (say, by 2021 or 2022). These vehicles have full autonomous driving capabilities in all driving conditions, but they need to shift control back to the driver if they cannot function as intended. Driverless cars being tested on public roads today – such as the Waymo project, which was formerly the Google Cars programme – are Level 3.
Level 4 – fully autonomous vehicle that can operate for the entire journey without any intervention whatsoever from the driver, save for inputting a destination. These are designed to operate in any conditions and circumstances imaginable and if the self-driving systems fail for any reason, then the car will come to a stop. Level 4 cars normally have ‘redundant controls’ for the driver to actively take command of the vehicle if they so wish; a good example of a Level 4 vehicle would be the BMW Vision iNext (BMW says it can be Level 5, but it does have a steering wheel and pedals that fold out of the dashboard/footwell) concept vehicle, although the company does say that when the iNext goes on sale, BMW reckons only Level 3 will be legalised – so it would have to be restricted to Level 3 usage.
Level 5 – a fully autonomous car, driven by an onboard AI and not intended to be regularly driven by a human being at all. Level 5 cars can still have redundant controls if the manufacturer so wishes, but some vehicles may be sold without any human-operable interfaces at all. An example of an intended Level 5 car would be Renault’s EZ-GO concept from the 2018 Geneva Motor Show, which is an electrified, four-wheeled pod that is a ‘shared urban mobility’ solution in the cities of the future. It is believed that Level 5 cars are still years, or maybe even decades, away from being available to the general public.
THE CARS WITH THE BEST SELF-DRIVING TECH
Mercedes-Benz E-Class, launched 2016: has a feature called Driver Assist Pack, which couples Merc’s Distronic radar cruise with a more lenient lane-keeping assist system that allows for the driver to spend more time with their hands off the wheel. With stop-and-go functionality for the Distronic, this means you can be in a terrible motorway snarl-up and be sat there with your arms folded and your hands off the wheel, and the E-Class will just edge along with the traffic flow for you. Similar tech can be found on other top-end Mercs, like the S-Class, GLS and new GLE.
BMW 5 Series, launched 2017: like the Merc, BMW’s mid-sized executive has a gamut of radar, lidar and cameras to ensure it can take the strain out of turgid commutes. BMW’s is called Driving Assistant Plus and it features Active Cruise Control with Stop&Go, plus Steering and Lane Control Assistant. Spec up the Remote Control Parking and you can even get out of the Five and drive it into your garage or a tight parking spot while standing alongside the car, using nothing more than a graphics screen on the large Display Key unit that stands in for an old-fashioned ignition key. The larger, technofest 7 Series has much the same equipment.
Volvo XC60, launched 2017: for those of you after an SUV, Volvo’s wonderful XC60 mid-sized effort can be specified with the aforementioned Pilot Assist. As the Swedish company has such a strong emphasis on safety, as evinced by its cars racking up some of the highest individual section scores in EuroNCAP tests (beneath the main five-star rating banner), the steering effect of Pilot Assist is quite noticeable and not everyone gets on with it, but you can deactivate the steering bit of it and just run in plain ol’ Adaptive Cruise Control if you so wish. Pilot Assist is available on most modern-era Volvos, like the XC40, S60/V60, S90/V90 and XC90 models.
Tesla Model S, launched 2012: perhaps the most infamous ‘self-driving’ mode of all in modern motoring, Tesla calls its assistance systems ‘Autopilot’. That very word brings connotations of Level 3/4/5 autonomy, but as no such things have been ratified as yet, it can be misleading. Autopilot, launched in 2014, does pretty much what all the cars already mentioned do, only it has more lenient settings. What’s most weird about Autopilot is that Tesla will update it with ‘over-the-air’ software packages during time; it has gone through several upgrades and changes since 2014, and – furthermore – Elon Musk promises that every car fitted with Autopilot has the necessary hardware onboard to one day be stepped up to full Level 5 autonomy. Freaky.
Audi A8, launched 2018: another one where the technology is available in other products, like the current A6 and A7 models, but the A8 Mk4 was the pioneer. The Ingolstadt company’s Traffic Jam Pilot is actually ratified as Level 3 tech, as it can control the car at speeds of up to 60km/h for longer periods of time. The A8 also has Piloted Parking, which – like the BMW system, and one being developed by Mercedes – means you can park the car in a ‘remote control’ fashion if you’re trying to squeeze it into a tight space.
Lexus LS, launched 2017: Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 is a very advanced system of autonomous safety tech, doing pretty much what many of the cars above do but also adding in the ability to perform its own controlled swerve if it detects a pedestrian and it thinks the driver hasn’t responded soon enough to avoid a collision, a beefed-up Lane Change Assist in which the car can switch lanes on its own, if the indicator is activated, and then Driver Emergency Stop Assist – a wonderful feature that will slowly and carefully bring the car to a complete halt, in the event that it senses the driver is unable to control the car any longer (i.e., they’ve been taken seriously ill at the wheel).
IS THIS JUST PREMIUM TECH FOR NOW?
No, many Level 2 driving features are starting to filter down into more affordable cars, like Hondas, Toyotas and Nissans, while Ford and Peugeot are also proud of their autonomous safety tech. It’s true that the best features are currently reserved for the more expensive machines, but it will only be a matter of a few months or just a couple of years before these Level 2/3 systems become democratised and widespread.
Carzone - 20-May-2019