One of the things I’ve alluded to and not addressed in a very straightforward manner is the fact that automation exists, full autonomy does not (today) and that there are a few steps between today and full autonomy. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has created a policy. It breaks down autonomous vehicles into 4 categories, as follows:
No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls – brake, steering, throttle, and motive power – at all times.
Function-specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.
Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.
Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.
Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.
In looking into this further (the PDF is here) it is clear that only control-specific safety functions are included. In other words, If a GPS guides you, this isn’t included as a safety function. Some others may disagree. I’ll have to think a little more about fleshing out what levels of autonomy *I* think we need to be addressing.
Another issue that I see is that most cars ALREADY have a large control function vested in computers. This is because most cars have some sort of “fly by wire” for throttle, if not breaks. That is, in most cars, the throttle is controlled by a computer that evaluates the driver’s foot position, not directly from the driver.