Who is really behind the steering wheel in this race?

Who is really behind the steering wheel in this race?

Monday, 30 april 2018 | Redacción CEU

Autonomous driving is positioned as the great driving force of the automotive industry future. All the big automobile companies point in the same direction, competing to become the first brand in the market that achieves the desired level 5, a challenge that, although it is seen in a near horizon, has not yet been able to take shape on the road, except in tests. Not a single firm wants to stay behind, because risking to miss this opportunity, could also make them fall from public grace against other contenders. In this race, that aims to develop a technology that will allow us to focus our attention on anything other than the road, there are many obstacles, problems and uncertainty that these companies have to face. As the saying goes, haste makes waste. Are car manufacturers choosing a good route or are they taking the wrong way?


There are two scandals that have recently shaded the race towards the complete autonomous driving. The first one is that corresponding to the fatal run over of a woman in Tempe (Arizona), an accident where a Volvo XC90 of the Uber's autonomous fleet was involved. The second incident, also a fatal accident, took place on the Highway 101 in Mountain View (California). A Tesla Model X with the Autopilot activated was involved in it. These events have brought back on the table the debate of the autonomous car development. Are brands ready to face a challenge of this magnitude? Will these vehicles really put an end to the high road accidents rate?

In the middle of the chaos, there are also two actors who stood out for maintaining their firm commitment to the development of this technology and turning a deaf ear to the consequences of the storm. California took a step forward. These events did not undermine the will of the US state to give the green light to the circulation of vehicles without a backup driver on board in their roads. Another of the great leading roles of this other side of the coin is China that continues betting on the test of autonomous vehicles in real conditions. The Asian giant is emerging more and more as one of the countries that will play an important role in the future of autonomous cars.

The “drivers” behind the steering wheels depend on the levels

The development of autonomous vehicles promises the end of the traffic jams, a greater comfort and freedom inside the vehicles, the total relaxation of the driver who becomes a passenger, the exclusive dedication to leisure and enjoyment in the car or the use of that extra time saved for other tasks like working. However, its greatest advantage is not any of these mentioned advantages, but the substantial decrease in traffic accidents. Some even predict that under the right conditions their disappearance could be practically total. Given this persuasive promise, it is not surprising that an alarm reaction arises in the face of this type of accidents where autonomous cars are involved. Something that makes both car lovers and the industry itself put their feet on the ground and think about at what point the development of this technology is.

Who is really behind the steering wheel in this race?

Geolocation and digital maps, artificial intelligence applied to the vehicle, laser sensors, LIDAR scanners, processors of last generation... Car manufacturers have made great progresses in the development of the autonomous technology. However, although some autonomous cars are already on the roads, the full autonomous driving is still at an experimental phase. In fact, in the scale of levels of the autonomous driving we are still halfway in terms of automation according to the most extended standard that it is the one from The NHTSA:

  • Level 0: On this level we find the conventional cars. The decisions and responsibilities are concentrated in the hands of the human drivers. There are very few newly manufactured cars that fit in this category.
  • Level 1: This is the one corresponding to the driver assistance. At this level there are many  cars that are now offered on the market and that have some movement control system whether they are longitudinal, like the adaptive cruise speed, or lateral, like the steering assistance systems. Vehicles are able of capturing the information from the outside and of helping drivers to make decisions. However, at this level drivers cannot take their hands off the steering wheels.
  • Level 2: This level is called partial automation. In this case, vehicles have both longitudinal and lateral movement control systems. Cars are capable of driving on their own for short periods of time. These vehicles require the drivers' attention at all times, they must be ready to take the steering wheel if there is something that cars do not detect or a failure happens. These cars are hard to find in the market but there are examples such as the Tesla Autopilot, the Mercedes Drive Pilot or the Nissan Qashqai ProPilot
  • Level 3: This level is known as conditioned driving automation. The drivers of the vehicles become backup users, they must continue to stay alert and take the wheel in case they do not meet optimal conditions such as visibility problems. There are very few examples of these vehicles, the Tesla Model S in its version Autopilot 2.0 is one of them.
  • Level 4: This is the level corresponding to the high automation. Drivers are dispensable, they become simple passengers. Vehicles are able to go from one point to another without human intervention. In case of failure, a second backup system would be responsible for the driving. It is still necessary for drivers to be in the vehicle. It differs from level 5 in that everything must be adapted to optimal operating conditions. All the examples of these vehicles are for the moment only prototypes.
  • Level 5: This is the finish line, the complete automation. Vehicles can drive alone without the presence of drivers and in all kinds of conditions. Their arrival will be a disruptive change.

It is clear that there is still a lot of work ahead in the development of autonomous cars of level 5, not only in relation to this technology, there are already prototypes of these vehicles with full autonomy, but the development of legislation and infrastructures that will be ready for their arrival is also necessary. Meanwhile, users who bet on these cars, whatever the level, they also have to be aware of who is behind the wheel in each "race".

At The CEU IAM School we are committed to the training of professionals with solid knowledge of the sector who can satisfy the demands of an automotive industry under a constant change and strongly committed to innovation. For that reason, we have designed our Master's Degree in the Automotive Industry Businesses.