A self-driving car (sometimes called an autonomous car or driverless car) is a vehicle that uses a combination of sensors, cameras, radar and artificial intelligence (AI) to travel between destinations without a human operator. To qualify as fully autonomous, a vehicle must be able to navigate without human intervention to a predetermined destination over roads that have not been adapted for its use.
Companies developing and/or testing autonomous cars include Audi, BMW, Ford, Google, General Motors, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo. Google’s test involved a fleet of self-driving cars — including Toyota Prii and an Audi TT — navigating over 140,000 miles of California streets and highways.
Levels of autonomy in self-driving cars
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lays out six levels of automation, beginning with Level 0, where humans do the driving, through driver assistance technologies up to fully autonomous cars. Here are the five levels that follow Level 0 automation:
- Level 1: An advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) aid the human driver with steering, braking or accelerating, though not simultaneously. An ADAS includes rearview cameras and features like a vibrating seat warning to alert drivers when they drift out of the traveling lane.
- Level 2: An ADAS that can steer and either brake or accelerate simultaneously while the driver remains fully aware behind the wheel and continues to act as the driver.
- Level 3: An automated driving system (ADS) can perform all driving tasks under certain circumstances, such as parking the car. In these circumstances, the human driver must be ready to retake control and is still required to be the main driver of the vehicle.
- Level 4: An ADS can perform all driving tasks and monitor the driving environment in certain circumstances. In those circumstances, the ADS is reliable enough that the human driver needn’t pay attention.
- Level 5: The vehicle’s ADS acts as a virtual chauffeur and does all the driving in all circumstances. The human occupants are passengers and are never expected to drive the vehicle.
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