Can You Buy a Car That Drives Itself?
The time when we can sit back and tell our car where to drive itself is getting closer every day. Self-driving cars (also called autonomous vehicles or driverless cars) promise new levels of efficiency and take driver fatigue and inattention out of the safety equation.
We’re on the cusp of a transportation revolution, where driverless cars become an essential mobility option. It won’t happen overnight, but self-driving vehicles and changes to our transportation infrastructure are coming sooner than you might think.
Self-driving cars require sophisticated suites of sensors, backed by advanced software that can interpret massive streams of data in real-time. While there are several barriers to the adoption of self-driving technology, automakers are making strides to quickly bring elements of the technology to the road. Pushing harder than anyone is Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, whose advanced products have forced other automakers to rapidly develop their own self-driving technologies.
Fully autonomous cars are currently undergoing testing in several areas of the country, but none are yet available to the general public. There are, however, several cars available that feature some level of autonomous operation.
The Levels of Self-Driving Cars
There are several different types of self-driving vehicles; the Society of Automotive Engineers has classified them into stages ranging from Level 0 to 5.
Level 0: Many of the cars available today are Level 0, as they lack any autonomous driving functions. The driver is responsible for all steering, acceleration, and braking, even if the vehicle is equipped with forward collision warning, cruise control, or lane departure warning.
Level 1: Level 1 autonomous vehicles have one or more systems that can intervene to brake, steer, or accelerate the car, but the systems do not work in tandem with one another. Examples of Level 1 features include adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and lane keeping assist.
Level 2: Vehicles with Level 2 autonomous technology can simultaneously control steering and speed at the same time, without driver intervention for short periods. They cannot perform autonomously under all conditions. The driver is required to stay attentive and be able to regain control of the car at any time. The Tesla Model S is perhaps the best-known Level 2 autonomous car, but it’s not the only vehicle that is available with the technology.
Level 3: Level 3 vehicles have full autonomous functions in all driving conditions but need to shift control back to the driver if they are unable to perform. Several of the autonomous cars currently being tested on public roads by companies such as Waymo (Google’s driverless car project) feature Level 3 technology.
Level 4: Fully autonomous vehicles can operate with no intervention from the driver other than the entry of the destination. They are designed to operate under any conditions. If the autonomous car systems fail, the vehicle will safely stop. They typically have redundant controls for the driver to actively take command of the car if they wish.
Level 5: Level 5 autonomous vehicles are designed from the ground up to operate entirely autonomously. While they may have redundant controls, they are not intended to be driven regularly by human drivers. Level 5 vehicles are likely still years or decades away from widespread deployment.
2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class
The 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class can be equipped with Drive Pilot, a system that meshes the functions of advanced adaptive cruise control with a lane keeping system to maintain proper spacing from other cars and gently guide the E-Class around moderate bends in the road.
An active lane-change system will automatically perform lane changes into unoccupied adjacent lanes when the driver requests them by activating the car’s turn signal.
In our rankings of luxury midsize cars, the 2017 Mercedes E-Class scores near the top.
2018 BMW 5 Series
The BMW 5 Series was fully redesigned for 2017, gaining autonomous driving features that include a remote control parking system that gently parks the vehicle in either parallel or perpendicular parking spots without a driver in the car. Everything is managed from a remote control keyfob.
BMW’s available Traffic Jam Assistant manages both steering and speed in stop and go traffic with minimal driver intervention. The system uses both lane markings and the car ahead for guidance.
In our rankings of luxury midsize cars, the 2018 BMW 5 Series earns a spot near the top.
2018 Volvo XC60
The redesigned 2018 Volvo XC60 can be equipped with one of the largest arrays of active safety and semi-autonomous driving features available on any vehicle in today’s market. The XC60 now includes steering support to help it maneuver to avoid collisions with other vehicles, pedestrians, or large animals.
Volvo will also offer Pilot Assist in the 2018 XC60. The system manages braking, steering, and acceleration at speeds at up to 80 mph on well-marked roads. Like many systems, it senses your hands on the steering wheel to ensure that you remain attentive, even when the semi-autonomous systems are functioning.
The 2018 Volvo XC60 is rated in the top-third in our rankings of luxury compact SUVs.
2017 Tesla Model S
Perhaps the best-known semi-autonomous vehicle sold today is the Tesla Model S. The company’s Autopilot technology has received as much attention for its well-publicized failures as it has for its cutting-edge capabilities. The Enhanced Autopilot in the Model S uses four cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors to “see” what’s happening around the car.
With Enhanced Autopilot, the Model S can center itself within its lane, automatically change lanes when directed, keep pace with traffic, transition from one freeway to another, and transition from a freeway to surface streets. When you arrive at your destination, the car can park itself.
Pushing the envelope even further, Tesla is set to offer a Full Self-Driving Capability package on the Model S. It is subject to further testing and regulatory approval before it can be activated. When it is activated, you’ll only have to enter an address in the navigation system or let the car see your upcoming appointments, and it will take you there with little or no driver intervention.
The Tesla Model S holds the top spot in our rankings of luxury large cars.
2018 Cadillac CT6
Cadillac has introduced their Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving technology on the 2018 Cadillac CT6. A constellation of radar and optical sensors on the big Cadillac sedan uses data from a precisely mapped Lidar database to give the system hyper-accurate location data.
Lidar is similar to radar, except that it uses light instead of radio signals to determine the distance to objects around it.
Cadillac is taking a measured approach to the deployment of the autonomous technology. Unlike some manufacturers, use of their system will be limited to controlled-access highways with on- and off-ramps. Super Cruise will also employ a small camera located at the top of the steering wheel to monitor the driver’s attention level and ensure that they can take over if needed.
Super Cruise manages steering and speed during highway driving, using lane centering technology and an advanced adaptive cruise control to take the workload off of the driver.
In U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of luxury large cars, the CT6 holds a spot in the upper half.
2017 Tesla Model X
Like the Model S, the Tesla Model X can be outfitted with some of the most advanced semi-autonomous driving features available, with the promise of more to come. It features eight cameras and twelve ultrasonic sensors to form images of its surroundings.
All Model X versions come with the hardware that they need for driverless operation; the functions just need to be activated in the car's computer when you buy the car, or via an over-the-air update at a later time. When you are cruising down the freeway, the Model X will look for the fastest lane and guide you there when directed.
The 2017 Tesla Model X holds one of the top positions in our rankings of luxury midsize SUVs.
2019 Audi A8
The 2019 Audi A8 isn’t available yet, but Audi promises some of the most advanced autonomous driving technology will be found on the redesigned ultra luxury sedan. Depending on local laws, the driver of an A8 using Traffic Jam Pilot can remove their hands from the steering wheel for long periods.
The system asks the driver to take over when conditions require their input. The system uses a laser sensor, in addition to radar, ultrasonic, and optical (camera) sensors.
Audi will also roll out an automatic parking system that does not require the driver to be in the car when it drives into or out of the garage.
No date has been announced for the arrival of the 2019 Audi A8 in the U.S. market.
Affordable Autonomous Options
You might be thinking by now that you have to spend a ton of money to get a car with autonomous driving functions, but that’s no longer true. Cars, such as the 2017 Honda Civic, can be outfitted with comprehensive driver assistance and active safety features that can reduce driver fatigue.
The Honda Sensing suite of systems is available on most Honda models. The $1,000 package includes adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and lane keeping assist.
Toyota makes the Toyota Safety Sense P package standard on more and more of its models each year. It’s even included on all Corolla sedans and RAV4 crossovers. It includes a similar package of features as the Honda Sensing system.
This article was originally published on U.S. News Best Cars.