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You May Have An Automated Car and Not Even Know It

When many of us think of an automated vehicle, we think of a futuristic car that drives itself without a steering wheel; we tell it where to go and it magically takes us there safely. There’s a bit of wonderment and fear thrown in since all the human control is taken out of the equation. We’re supposed to sit back and relax, perhaps read our phones or meditate. While that vision may seem far off, it’s actually not. Fully automated vehicle pilot programs have been in place in several cities around the United States for a few years now with mixed success and GM has petitioned NHTSA to deploy vehicles without steering wheels or other human controls this year. But these kinds of vehicles are highly specific and not what the Average Joe or Josephina comes into contact every day when they drive to work or run errands. What is automation in today’s car?

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines levels of automation and that’s important when it comes to describing what’s available in the average vehicle because the actual driver assistance technology names used by vehicles manufacturers is very proprietary and confusing (gotta love creative marketers!). Most of us have cruise control, which falls into Level 1 longitudinal control (lengthwise control). Adaptive cruise control, in which your speed will vary based on the distance of the car in front of you, also is a Level 1 automation. Bet you didn’t realize you had an automated car!

Level 0: No automation; this includes blind spot warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning

Level 1: Lateral automation, such as lane centering (lateral control, or side to side control), OR longitudinal automation, such as adaptive cruise control (speed and distance control); this level is basic speed and steering

Level 2: Sustained automation of both lateral AND longitudinal controls; this level is the car driving itself, but the human driver must have hands on the steering wheel and be ready to take over at any given moment

Level 3: Very similar to Level 2, but the vehicle monitors the surrounding environment; human driver must be ready to take over at any time when the automation system requests

Level 4: Driving is performed by automation system and no human is required; vehicle will pull itself over if something happens and is usually limited in some manner, such as speed

Level 5: Truly automated with no human intervention whatsoever; does not exist yet

Vehicle manufacturers like to give their automation packages slick names. It can be confusing for consumers and dangerous because they think their vehicles are far more capable of doing things than they really are. Take Tesla’s Autopilot, for example. Autopilot makes it sound like the system drives itself like a plane on autopilot: just punch in some coordinates, sit back, relax, and let the car do all the work. It couldn’t be further from the truth. While using Autopilot, I’ve had my Model X veer off the interstate as it follows lane markings towards exits I didn’t want to take, accelerate into stopped traffic it didn’t “see,” and drive like only a grandpa could due to the adaptive cruise control. I don’t blame the technology—I expect it because it’s relatively new technology and far from perfect. I only use Autopilot on long trips on open highways because Teslas are tiring to drive; I honestly don’t know how people can fall asleep on city freeways and stay alive in them, and a number of them haven’t. There’s a theory on why Autopilot can’t see red firetrucks parked in freeway lanes (read about it here)—at least 2 people have been killed by slamming into firetrucks.

Other manufacturers have equally confusing names for their technologies: Nissan uses ProPilot Assist, Volkswagen/Audi and Acura use Traffic Jam Assist, Cadillac uses Super Cruise, and BMW uses Driving Assistant Plus. All of these automation systems, including Tesla’s Autopilot, are Level 2 (sorry to burst your bubble, Tesla fans, Autopilot is not higher up). All of these automation systems have adaptive cruise control and lane centering, but Cadillac’s Super Cruise adds a hands-free ability and BMW’s Driving Assistant Plus adds camera features.

Adaptive cruise control has been in vehicles around the world for well over 20 years, but if you’ve owned a vehicle in the US in the past 7-10 years, especially a higher end model, you’ve likely had one with it. Technology in vehicles is moving so quickly that we’re seeing these features start out in the more expensive cars and move to the more economical ones very rapidly. Automated vehicles with varying levels of automation are on our streets and we’re having to interact with them more and more each day. Knowing that they’re out there and what features they have make us more informed and safer drivers.