The Truth About Self-Driving Cars

 By Diane Tait

Image courtesy Pixabay

For the past few years, it seems the only time you read or hear about self-driving cars is when a new model is released or when one crashes.  While that may make for titillating headlines, the truth of the matter is that the technology will continue to develop as time goes on.  Not only are billionaires betting the bank on it, but the systems that automate driving are slowly but surely making their way into every vehicle on the road.  If you've been losing sleep about losing control over your car to onboard automation, here's what you need to know.

The computerized cabbie in your car. – While there are currently no autonomous vehicles available to the general public, some of the systems that make them tick are already being installed at the factory.  That's right, if your vehicle comes equipped with such options as adaptive cruise control, lane maintain, proximity alerts, automatic braking or parking, you're already ceding control to onboard automation.  Below is a description of some of the automated driving options currently available.

1. Adaptive Cruise Control - While cruise control has been around for decades, the latest iteration does more than set a speed.  It also alters your vehicle's speed to match that of the traffic ahead.  That means if traffic slows or even stops, your vehicle will do the same.  When traffic speeds up, your vehicle will do so up to the speed you dialed in when you activated the option.  Many adaptive cruise controls also allow you to select and adjust the lead distance maintained between you and the vehicles ahead as road and weather conditions change.

2. Digital Watchdogs- They don't call it white line fever for nothing.  Cruising for mile after mile down the highway can prove quite hypnotic.  So much so that some drivers have been known to stray from their lane or even fall asleep at the wheel.  To combat these issues, automakers have come up with a variety of automated systems that can alert drivers to either situation or take control to prevent lane incursions.  The first line of digital defense provides an aural warning to let drivers know they have strayed from their lane.  The next level adds automation that takes control of the wheel to steer you back into your lane.  Last but not least are camera-equipped systems that alert you should you start to nod off.

3. Eye See You - Cameras and lidar are being tasked with keeping both drivers and pedestrians safer.  Proximity alert systems are popping up on all kinds of vehicles nowadays.  Designed to alleviate blind spots, this technology either warns drivers of imminent danger, such as a vehicle or pedestrian heading their way, or it automatically applies the brakes to prevent drivers from hitting anything crossing their path.  This not only includes lane incursions and cross-traffic, but it can also prevent drivers from backing out only to hit a vehicle they can't see.  If you've ever had a collision or a close call while backing out of a parking spot, you'll appreciate proximity alert systems.

4. Do you hate parallel parking? - There are automated parking systems that can accomplish this devilishly difficult task for you hands-free.  Some will even back out of a parking space for you as well.

Image courtesy Pixabay

The many faces of self-driving vehicles. – While many people realize that self-driving technology is here to stay, what most don't understand is that there are actually five levels of self-driving vehicles.

    a. Level 1 - If you have old-school cruise control, you have what amounts to a training wheels level of self-driving, since you can set your throttle to maintain a constant speed until you hit the gas or the brakes.  The same can be said of vehicles that have proximity alert systems that do nothing more than warn them of imminent danger.

    b. Level 2 - Vehicles equipped with adaptive cruise control, automated lane-keeping systems, and automated parking systems cede certain driving functions to automation.  While vehicles equipped with even more advanced self-driving systems can change lanes without driver intervention, such as Tesla Autopilot, the vehicle still needs to be monitored and if necessary taken control of by a human being when the situation warrants.  

    c. Level 3 - A vehicle so equipped can be permitted to drive itself under limited conditions.  Still, the driver must be prepared to take over primary driving functions at a moment's notice.  Currently, the only company that sells a Level 3 vehicle is Honda, which introduced its Honda 100 Legend on March 5, 2021.  That's the good news.  Before you rush down to the local Honda dealer to plunk down $102,000 to purchase one be aware that the car is only being sold in Japan at present.  Others who have tried and failed to embrace this level of autonomy are Uber who sold its self-driving car business to Aurora Innovation in 2020 after a fatal accident involving one of its self-driving taxis.

    d. Level 4 - At this level of sophistication, all driving functions can be automated without the need for a driver to take control.  However, Level 4 vehicles are only permitted to exercise this much control in a fixed loop on known roads.  The only vehicles able to qualify for this designation at present are some driverless buses in Malaga, Spain, and Waymo rideshare vehicles currently being tested in San Francisco.  

    e.  Level 5 - The Holy Grail of automotive automation, Level 5 vehicles never require humans to take control.  Many of these vehicles won't even be equipped with steering wheels or pedals.  All you'll have to do is tell the vehicle where you want to go and enjoy the ride.  Currently, there are no vehicles that have qualified for this designation.

While it could be some time before you can roll on down to your local car dealer to buy or lease a fully autonomous vehicle, the truth about self-driving cars is we can now enjoy many of the systems that make driving safer and less of a chore.  

Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance.  To find out more about how you can save money on auto insurance, go to her site.


  1. I think they should make proximity alerts and adaptive cruise control standard on all cars in this country. It would reduce accidents substantially.


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