What Are Autonomous Vehicles?

Did you know Leonardo da Vinci designed what would become known as the first autonomous ‘vehicle’? He built a three-wheeled cart, which traveled on a pre-determined path, using springs under high tension to create movement. Over hundreds of years, technology has evolved to the point that many of the vehicles you see on the road today are semi-autonomous or fully autonomous.

So what’s considered a fully autonomous vehicle? These are vehicles that can drive themselves. You can take your hands off the wheel, or even sit in the passenger seat, and rely on the vehicle's advanced technology to get from point A to point B. 

While fully autonomous vehicles aren’t available for purchase yet, chances are you’ll see some fully autonomous rideshare vehicles on the road today, and one day those vehicles may go from city streets to your own garage.

Navigating Tomorrow: Understanding Autonomous Vehicles

When you think of autonomous vehicles, a few ideas may come to mind: vehicles that have hands-free parking assistance, collision avoidance, or even those that have become widely available to the public like the Tesla with its built-in autopilot system. While the thought of taking your hands off the wheel can seem daunting, there are several technologies available today that could make driverless cars the way of the future.

Understanding Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles, sometimes referred to as self-driving cars or driverless cars, can navigate the road without human input. Using emerging technologies, these vehicles could change the future of transportation by creating safe, efficient, and accessible transportation for millions of people across the world.

Defining the Landscape

Whether they’re taking a trip to the local grocery store, visiting a friend, or getting to and from work, the benefits of autonomous vehicles go beyond transportation itself, opening opportunities to people who may not otherwise have access to transportation. With autonomous vehicles, people could potentially lead more independent lives.

Introduction to Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are equipped with sophisticated sensors, cameras, and artificial intelligence (AI) systems. These systems can interpret vehicle surroundings, make decisions, and navigate routes without human input.

Key Components of Self-Driving Cars and Driverless Vehicles

Self-driving or semi-autonomous cars are designed to handle routine driving tasks. These tasks primarily include lane-keeping, acceleration, braking, parking, and collision detection. Driverless vehicles eliminate the need for a driver entirely. These vehicles are equipped with advanced systems that allow them to operate, analyze, and detect road conditions including other vehicles, pedestrians, and intersections. Driverless vehicles can also brake, accelerate, steer, park, shift gears, or activate turn signals and hazard lights. 

Levels of Autonomy

All vehicles have a level of autonomy, rated from zero to five. These ratings are used to create a clearer understanding of the capabilities and limitations of vehicles.

Unpacking Autonomy Levels

Vehicles are rated by the Society of Automobile Engineers (SAE). A rating from zero to two requires a person to drive the vehicle. Ratings of three to five do not require a person to drive the vehicle:

  • SAE Level Zero - Features in these vehicles may provide warnings or momentary assistance. This includes features like automatic emergency braking and blind spot warnings.

  • SAE Level One - These vehicles either feature steering support or brake and acceleration support, but not both. Examples include automatic lane centering or adaptive cruise control.

  • SAE Level Two - Vehicles with an SAE Level Two feature both steering and brake and acceleration control. In SAE Level Two vehicles, features like lane centering and adaptive cruise control can be used at the same time.

  • SAE Level Three - SAE Level Three vehicles have autonomous features that allow drivers to keep their hands off the wheel for extended periods of time, however, they may still need to take over in some instances.

  • SAE Level Four - These vehicles can drive completely autonomously. Most current SAE Level Four autonomous vehicles include local driverless taxis and rideshares like Cruise or Waymo.

  • SAE Level Five - These autonomous vehicles can drive anywhere under any conditions. Currently, autonomous vehicles have yet to reach this status, as they can only drive within specified areas in designated cities.

Is Tesla an Autonomous Vehicle?

Teslas are semi-autonomous, meaning they cannot be driven without human assistance. Teslas are SAE Level Two vehicles, so they can brake, accelerate, and lane-center when autopilot is activated. Because drivers cannot keep their hands off the wheel for extended periods, and they may need to take over in situations of high vehicle or pedestrian traffic, the vehicles are considered semi-autonomous.

Are there Fully Autonomous Cars?

Fully autonomous vehicles are most often used by companies providing rideshare services. You can try an autonomous vehicle for yourself in some cities across the U.S., however, currently, these vehicles cannot be purchased for personal use. 

Evolution of Autopilot Systems

Autopilot systems have played a pivotal role in advancing autonomous vehicles. Initially introduced in aviation, autopilot has found its way into some of today’s vehicles.

Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles

From mitigating human error, to predictive navigation and boosting fuel efficiency, autonomous vehicles have many benefits.

Mitigating Human Errors

With advanced sensors and real-time data analysis, autonomous vehicles can detect potential hazards and respond accordingly, mitigating the impact of human-related accidents or errors on the road.

Advanced Collision Avoidance Systems

Autonomous vehicles are equipped with collision avoidance systems that use sensors, cameras, and radar to detect obstacles and potential collisions and respond accordingly.

Enhancing Transportation Efficiency

Imagine you ride the city bus or subway to work every day. With multiple stops on your route, you may have to plan extra travel time. With autonomous vehicles, people not only can save time, but the vehicles themselves have many features making them more efficient and environmentally friendly in comparison to traditional transportation.

Optimizing Traffic Flow

Autonomous vehicles can adjust speeds, choose optimal routes, and maintain consistent spacing, leading to a more efficient experience for all road users.

Predictive Navigation and Routing

Autonomous vehicles can analyze data, including traffic patterns and road incidents. By avoiding congested areas and selecting optimal paths, autonomous vehicles not only become more efficient, saving valuable time for passengers, but these vehicles are more environmentally friendly too.

Environmental Impact

The benefits of autonomous vehicles extend beyond safety and efficiency to environmental sustainability. By optimizing fuel efficiency and alleviating traffic congestion, autonomous vehicles can reduce the overall environmental impact of transportation.

Boosting Fuel Efficiency

Through precise control of acceleration and braking, autonomous vehicles can maximize energy conservation, leading to reduced fuel consumption and lower emissions.

Accessibility and Inclusivity

For people with disabilities, seniors, young adults, and others who may have limited access to transportation, autonomous vehicles play a pivotal role in increasing access and independence. For example, a young adult who has yet to get their license could travel on their own, reducing the need to rely on other services or people. The same is true for people with disabilities and seniors.

Improved Access for the Elderly and Persons with Disabilities

Autonomous vehicles play a pivotal role in increasing access and independence for seniors and people with disabilities. For example, a person who is blind may need to travel with a guide dog. In a driverless car, they don’t have to worry about being denied access to travel with their service animal. Seniors can face physical or cognitive impairments with age, impacting their ability to drive. With autonomous vehicles, older adults can get to and from medical appointments, local shops, or restaurants, without having to rely on others for transportation.

Bridging Transportation Gaps in Underserved Communities

In underserved communities where traditional transportation may be lacking, autonomous vehicles can bridge the gap, allowing greater access to school, work, and other day-to-day activities.

Urban Planning and Infrastructure

Autonomous vehicles impact the way cities plan and allocate resources. From parking structures to public transit, the design and utilization of these services will adapt to accommodate changes in the transportation landscape. 

Challenges of Autonomous Vehicles

Like human drivers, autonomous vehicles are not seamless in the transportation they provide. With an inability to communicate directly with a driver, some could find autonomous transportation more daunting or challenging.

Legal and Liability Challenges

With no human drivers, legal and liability concerns are brought to the forefront. For example, if an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident, who would be considered responsible? Addressing legal and liability challenges is essential to ensuring a smooth ride for all.

Technological Hurdles

Even with today’s technological advancements, there are still hurdles to overcome to ensure safety for those utilizing autonomous transportation.

Adapting to Adverse Weather Conditions

Autonomous vehicles may struggle to navigate adverse weather conditions like heavy rain, snow, ice, or fog. 

Strengthening Cybersecurity Measures

As vehicles become increasingly reliant on technology, cybersecurity becomes a concern. Protecting autonomous vehicles from threats is crucial to prevent unauthorized access and potential safety risks.

The Future Landscape

Autonomous vehicles could be the way of the future, but the widespread use of these vehicles will require some form of regulation, meeting not only local and state laws, but some global compliance may be necessary as well. Currently, there are no state or federal laws regarding the use of autonomous vehicles, hence why the technology is only used in some states as well as countries outside of the U.S.

Navigating Government Policies and Legislation

Governments worldwide are navigating complex policies and legislation related to autonomous vehicles. Finding a balance between promoting innovation and ensuring public safety requires careful consideration before these vehicles will rev up their engines on roads across the world.

Anticipating the Future - Embracing the Evolution of Autonomous Vehicles

The potential to revolutionize road safety, enhance transportation efficiency, and promote accessibility plays a pivotal role in the continued drive to increase access to autonomous transportation worldwide.

Did you know BraunAbility is embracing the evolution of autonomous vehicles for people with disabilities? We’re working with Cruise to create the world’s first wheelchair accessible autonomous vehicle. In the meantime, while we’re changing the future of accessible transportation, you can visit your local BraunAbility dealership to look at the human-driven accessible vehicles available to you.

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