The Self-Driving Car Is Here. What You Need to Know From the Company That’s Making it Happen

Mercedes-Benz Fo15 Self-Driving Car Concept
Abigail Bassett rides in the Mercedes-Benz FO15 Self-Driving Concept car in San Francisco in 2015.

How is this Possible?

There are so many questions surrounding the future of self-driving cars that it can be a confusing morass to try and untangle. When will it happen? Will cars really drive themselves? What will it take to get autonomous vehicles on the road? According to one auto supplier, ZF, a company that’s at the forefront of creating the technology that goes into both modern car technology and future cars, it could be sooner than you think.

In fact, at CES this year, ZF and NVIDIA, the microchip supplier, announced a partnership and the fourth generation of their artificial intelligence, (AI), system, the Pro-AI autonomous vehicle controller. The system is a supercomputer that can take all the data from various sensors around a vehicle, quickly process it, and tell the car what to do, all in just seconds. They say that this new controller will help carmakers move into new levels of autonomous driving in the very near future.

Mercedes Urbanetic At Ces 2019

The Mercedes Urbanetic at CES 2019. Photo: Abigail Bassett

What Exactly is a Self-Driving Car?

A self-driving car is a vehicle that can drive itself from point A to point B without the intervention of a human. Self-driving cars are also known as autonomous or driverless cars. ZF defines a self-driving car as one that can “see, think and act,” for the driver in a variety of real-world situations.

We’ve been hearing about self-driving cars for decades now, whether they show up in far-fetched science fiction or at tech events where concepts of the future look more like rolling living rooms than cars. While it may seem like the future of self-driving vehicles is right around the corner, there are plenty of hurdles that have to be crossed before we’re programming our vehicles to pick up our children at school or get that forgotten gallon of milk at the grocery store.

These run the gamut from legal questions of responsibility and legislative issues to technology and even road conditions and they will take a lot more than just technology to untangle.

Further reading: Want to see the self-driving car do it’s thing? Make plans now for the 2020 Detroit Auto Show

Self-Driving Car

Bonny Buckner takes a virtual spin in an autonomous car that can also allow a driver to take over. Photo: Bonny Buckner

The Dealer Said I Have Self Driving Technology in My Car. What Does That Mean? 

Modern vehicles have plenty of driver assistance technologies in them today. You may have even heard your dealer tell you that your vehicle has self-driving technology in it. In some ways this is accurate and others, it’s misleading. If your vehicle has things like lane-departure assistance, adaptive cruise control, and parking assistance then you have self-driving technology in your vehicle.

Be warned, however. Just because you have self-driving tech doesn’t mean that you can take a nap and let the car drive you to yoga. 

To understand the idea behind self-driving cars, it’s important to know that there are different levels of autonomous driving systems recognized by the government. They are labeled Level 0 through Level 5. They include:

  • Level 0: Cars that have warning systems (like merge warnings) are considered Level 0. In these cars, the systems can warn and possibly take over momentarily to prevent a crash, but they don’t take over sustained control of the vehicle.
  • Level 1: When you share control of the vehicle. These are systems like adaptive cruise control and parking assistance. You still have to be involved, but the vehicle can handle certain things and warn you when you may be running a risk.
  • Level 2: When the vehicle can take total control of the braking, accelerating, and steering in specific conditions. Examples of this kind of system include Mercedes-Benz’s Distronic Plus system that can steer around corners without the input of the driver.
  • Level 3: When the car can mostly drive itself in some conditions and the driver can do something else like text. The driver still must be present and pay some level of attention, but things like stop-and-go traffic assistance are good examples of Level 3 systems. Audi’s A8 offers some of this technology including their system called “Pre-Sense City.” At speeds up to 52 mph, the car scans ahead 328 feet using a variety of high-tech systems. It can adjust the damper settings to smooth out rough roads ahead, or it can apply brakes if there is a slowdown around an unseen bend. The driver still has to pay attention and take over if and when something happens, but the system is considered to be Level 3 autonomy.
  • Level 4: At this stage, the driver may safely take a nap or move from the driver’s seat. There are no current production cars that offer this level of autonomy.
  • Level 5: No human is required to even be in the car at this level of autonomy. Think of it like the people mover, the Vision Urbanetic,  that Mercedes-Benz showed off at CES this year.

Further reading: Ford’s plan to build the future starts with reimagining a historic train station in downtown Detroit

Hands Off, Feet Off, Brain Off: A Simple Breakdown of Autonomous Driving

The details in each level can be enough to trip up even the experts. ZF’s clever breakdown of the different levels makes it simple to remember. They include:

  • Assisted (Level 0): These systems can help you but don’t take over.
  • Feet Off (Level 1): Cruise control and braking assistance.
  • Hands Off (Level 2): Adaptive Cruise control that helps the car move smoothly through traffic and around corners in certain situations. Some self-parking assistance systems also fall into this category.
  • Eyes Off (Level 3): Get your phone out, its time to text!
  • Brain Off (Level 4-5): Take a nap, read, watch a movie, your vehicle will get you there without any input from you.

At each level of assistance, you can allow the car to take over more and more of the driving tasks. ZF says that we are well on our way towards self-driving vehicles and they could come sooner than we think if those legal, technological and infrastructure hurdles can be crossed.


Will Cars Really Drive Themselves? 

Yes, and there are plenty of companies out there trying to figure out what that future might look like.

Autonomous vehicles are already in use in manufacturing and move things around inside massive warehouses. There are autonomous forklifts that move pallets from one area to another, unload them and then go back to where they started all without the help of humans. They use cameras and image recognition algorithms to move things from place to place. A warehouse, however, is not the open road. Because a warehouse is a closed system with constant conditions (it never rains in a warehouse), autonomous vehicles flourish in these places.

Autonomous vehicles in the outside world, however, are a completely different animal.  Systems tend to fail when there are out-of-the-ordinary occurrences, like weather, roadwork, or closed roads. They also tend to fail when there are no clear lines or markers on a roadway. That means that, at least in the initial phase, it’s likely that autonomous vehicles will have their own lanes totally separate from other traffic, and they will only be operable in certain areas of the country.

The first place that we’ll likely see autonomous vehicles in the outside world is in cross-country shipping using semi-trucks. Companies like Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla have all announced concepts for this future and shown off what those vehicles might look like. They use advanced technology to see far ahead in just-right conditions and move cargo safely from one place to another. That doesn’t, however, mean that there won’t be a driver in the cabin to take over should the system fail, at least not at this point, mainly because the legal questions of responsibility haven’t been decided yet.

Eventually, the thinking is that we will see vehicles like people movers in big cities that are completely autonomous and help move populations from one place to another. This is likely to happen before we see the technology of fully autonomous operation in passenger cars.

Further reading: How YOU are helping to shape the future of cars and driving: World Car Awards

When Will it Happen? 

The jury is out on the timing, but most experts believe that we won’t see autonomous vehicles on regular roads for decades. This is because of all the legal issues, the technological issues and the infrastructure issues that we have all over the country.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t see an increasing number of autonomous features in new cars, however. Car makers will continue to push the needle forward as we move closer to an autonomous future and we’ll continue to see demonstrations of concept vehicles like the Self-Driving Taxi that ZF showed off at CES this year.

Abigail Bassett is an Emmy-winning journalist and video content producer who has covered events all over the world. Abigail... More about Abigail Bassett