Towards self-driving autonomy

  • Living
  • Thursday, 28 Sep 2023

Look, no hands! Driver in cars with modern assistance systems can hand over the steering work to software in certain conditions. Photo: dpa

More and more cars can help you stay in lane and warn about something in your blind spot, but a growing number of cars also have an assistant that can drive all by itself – at least in certain conditions.

What the electronic helpers are able to do all depends on their so-called autonomy level.

With so-called Level 1 and Level 2 systems, the responsibility remains with the driver, even if assistants can take some control over steering and speed.

“The driver must always keep their eyes on the road, but can temporarily take their hands off the steering wheel if it is ensured that they are looking at the road,” says Prof Markus Lienkamp, an autonomous driving researcher at the Technical University of Munich (TUM).

It’s only at level 3 that the car takes over responsibility and the driver can entirely devote their attention to other things.

But even here, the driver still needs to be able to take over responsibility again within 10 seconds. This means staying put in the driver’s seat and keeping your hands at the ready to intervene if necessary.

Mercedes-Benz is so far the only manufacturer to offer such a system. This system also restricts the areas in which the car is able to drive autonomously, Prof. Lienkamp explains.

For example, the Mercedes-Benz Traffic Jam Assist takes over responsibility up to a maximum of 60kph at an outside temperature of over 4°C, only on motorways and not in construction sites.

Ultimately, manufacturers aim to build self-driving cars that don’t even have a steering wheel, which would take us to level 5 autonomy. Despite ever-more mobility companies testing out robo-taxis on city streets, the technology just isn’t ready.

Autonomous transportation is only five years away, experts have been saying for the past decade or longer. You probably shouldn’t hold your breath for this long-promised revolution in mobility.

The different levels – from full control to no control

Level 0: This corresponds to continuous driving without any actively intervening assistance systems. The driver is in complete directional control of the vehicle. Fewer and fewer cars are set to be made at level 0 in the coming years.

Level 1: Here the driver is supported by active systems that take over either the longitudinal or lateral guidance of the vehicle. An example of this would be where a proximity cruise control system governs the speed and distance to the vehicle in front, while the driver still has control of the steering function in normal traffic. However, in an emergency the driver can override the automatic controls by carrying out emergency braking, for example.

Level 2: This means the car is partially automated. In certain cases, the driver leaves the longitudinal and lateral guidance completely to the car and its assistance systems. However, you still have overall responsibility for everything. This means you have to constantly monitor the overall system and intervene immediately if circumstances require it.

Level 3: A highly automated system which permanently takes over longitudinal and lateral control and automatically recognises when the required environmental conditions or other prerequisites no longer apply.

It then prompts the driver to take over the driving. The driver no longer needs to constantly monitor such a system and can devote their attention to other things. The system is designed to alert the driver in enough time so they can safely take over.

Level 4: Here the car basically drives itself completely in every conceivable traffic situation. The driver can even sleep while travelling, but must be able to take over the vehicle when requested to do so.

Level 5: The ultimate level of autonomous driving - the car drives completely independently of any human control in any situation and can even be designed without a steering wheel. – dpa/Fabian Hoberg

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