What consumers call autopilot is officially known as advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS for short. The idea behind vehicle autopilot is to have a car that drives itself, makes decisions on the fly, and essentially replaces the need for a human driver behind the wheel. Can the vehicle detect traffic signals? Does it see lane changes? Can it self-drive on the freeway? These are only some of the factors we analyze when assessing autopilot capabilities in electric vehicles.
The idea behind today’s autopilot is that cars are supposed to be self-driving one day. Today’s best vehicle autopilot systems still require the driver to be in control and only provide assistance in limited situations.
Levels of Driving Automation
The Society of Automotive Engineers has devised a framework for self-driving automation. However, as of today, the vehicle autopilot systems available in consumer cars are, at best, level 2.
Looking at the self-driving framework, three questions are asked:
- Who is driving?
- What driving functions are being automated?
- What conditions can the vehicle autopilot operate in?
The Society of automotive engineers devised six levels to describe how automated a vehicle autopilot system would be.
Level 0 represents no automation at all. On the other end of the spectrum, level five represents that vision of a fully self-driving car that can handle all situations, thus replacing the human driver.
As of today, vehicle autopilot systems are at level 3, which still requires the human driver to control the vehicle and always pay attention.
Level 3 Driving Automation Explained
Level 3 refers to a type of vehicle that has some level of automation. It is capable of driving itself in certain situations but still requires human oversight. Essentially, level 3 automation can operate the vehicle under specific conditions, but will only do so if all the required criteria are met. While the system is engaged, the driver is not in control of the vehicle, but there may be instances where the level 3 automation will pass control back to the driver to take over driving.
Level 2 Driving Automation Explained
Most current vehicle autopilot systems found in new cars are level 2. What level 2 represents is a vehicle that has semi-autonomous steering, accelerating, and braking. The vehicle autopilot systems typically work only on freeways and only in certain situations requiring the human driver to be attentive and ready to take back control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice. Therefore with a level 2 vehicle autopilot system, the human is responsible for driving the vehicle.
Level 1 Driving Automation Explained
More economical or older electric cars may have level 1 driving automation as their vehicle autopilot system. A level 1 system would require the driver to always be responsible for the vehicle. For example, either steering or speed control may be semi-automated but not both simultaneously. Adaptive cruise control systems found in cars are an example of level 1 automation.
How does Vehicle Automation Make Sense of The World?
How vehicle autopilots visualize the world around them through the use of sensors. These sensors are usually a combination of cameras and radar. Google Waymo vehicles use another form of sensor called Lidar, but consumer passenger vehicles cannot afford this expensive technology.
Today, car companies use cameras and radar to render the world and identify other vehicles, pedestrians, and important markers. Unfortunately, cameras, particularly during rain and snow, the technology works poorly, leading to vehicle autopilot systems being used primarily during clear weather.
How Electric Driver Determines Autopilot Suitable to Your Needs
Autopilot systems today used in electric passenger vehicles are typically level 2 driving automation. This means the vehicle can steer, accelerate, and brake in certain situations with required constant human supervision as the system can pass back driving to the driver (think of this as a driving assistance feature).
Lane centering or auto-steering is an electric vehicle’s ability to stay within a lane while on autopilot. Current lane-centering systems rely on visible lane markings to work. If lane markings are obstructed, lane-centering may not work.
Another criterion we look at is if the carmaker includes autopilot or charges an additional fee.
Adaptive Cruise Control
Adaptive Cruise Control is the ability of the autopilot system to accelerate, brake, and keep a distance away from other vehicles while driving. We check if autopilot includes adaptive cruise control. Any level 2 autopilot system would require adaptive cruise control to function.
Driver Attention Monitoring
Since the current autopilot system requires the human driver to be alert and ready to take back control at any time, driving attention monitoring becomes an important feature.
Driver attention monitoring usually looks like the driver has their hands on the steering wheel. Some driver monitoring systems look at where your eyes are also looking to determine driver attention. We look to see if the autopilot system has driver attention monitoring, and if so, we factor it in when evaluating an autopilot system.
Freeway Self Driving Capability
People typically use autopilot systems for driving on city streets or freeways. Freeway driving is the easier of the two scenarios, as the electric vehicle typically drives on a straight road with minimal turns, no interceptions, and more predictable driving conditions.
Street Driving Capability
Autopilot traversing city streets is a more complex task, and as of today, one that autopilot systems are grappling with. Street driving requires a more sophisticated autopilot to understand streets, intersections, and more complex driving situations. Suppose autopilot systems cannot operate on city streets and make the decisions needed for street driving; you will see the system passing back driving functions to human driving.
Reading Traffic Signals
One determinant that can assist the autopilot system is whether it can read traffic signals. If the vehicle can identify and understand the meaning of stoplights, caution signage, and stop signs, we factor that into autopilot rankings.
Automated Lane Changes
The ability of an autopilot system to make lane changes is a feature we are looking for. Autopilot lane change can determine whether a vehicle is in the lane or is open. The electric vehicle autopilot system will change the lane if the lane is empty.