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AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES Reality check for SAE Levels 3, 4, and 5 functionality
Over the past decade, many automakers committed to producing fully self-driving production cars by the year 2020. So far, none have actually delivered on this promise.
By now, most readers are likely familiar with the six Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) levels of automotive autonomy; “conditional autonomy” starts at SAE Level 3, where drivers can take their hands off the steering wheel and let the car’s autonomous driving systems take over, so long as the driver remains ready to take back control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice. At SAE Level 4, a driver can set aside even this level of attention and take their eyes off the road; the automobile then becomes truly self-driving as most people imagine autonomous vehicles (AVs) to be. And at SAE Level 5, a driver is no longer a driver at all; he or she undertakes no driving actions whatsoever from the commencement of his or her journey to the time he or she leaves the car; the auto takes care of everything, from pulling into traffic to parking.
If one had listened to many automaker OEMs in the early 2010s, a common refrain was that at least some vehicles would have achieved SAE Level 4 or 5 functionality by now. But reality has turned out differently, as only a scant few robotaxi services and low-speed shared mobility shuttle buses in a very limited number of locations have achieved this—and even then, in many instances, backup drivers remain in these vehicles for safety.
In some cases, this latter caveat is mandated by local laws. But in most instances, it’s the case of technology not advancing as far as had been predicted that’s at fault.