What makes a car qualify as ‘self-driving’? ‘5 levels of introduction’ – what are the levels? What’s the difference?

A vehicle qualifies as ‘self-driving’ or ‘antonymous’ if it is able to master all traffic-related tasks independently. Commonly, only the last one out of the 5 levels of automation – the one where a driver is no longer needed – is called ‘self-driving’. From a technical perspective, the ‘5 levels of introduction’ describe degrees of automation and the specific technical challenges of every individual level.

5 Stufen der Einführung
Abbildung 1 - Bildquelle: http://www.fuw.ch, 2015

Who is currently developing self-driving cars?

developing self-driving cars for some years now. Their approaches vary greatly: While traditional automakers chose a path of evolution and attempt to gradually make driver assistance systems more intelligent and automated (level by level, from 2 to 5), technology corporations such as Google, UBER and Apple take a revolutionary path and try to launch self-driving cars (level 5) directly, omitting the previous levels.

European Roadmap, Smart Systems for Automated Driving
Abbildung 2 - Bildquelle: EPoSS European Technology Platform on Smart Systems Integration: European Roadmap, Smart Systems for Automated Driving. Version 1.2; Version April 2015. Seite 24.

How far has the development of self-driving cars come?

The most advanced vehicles on the market today reach development level 2, self-driving cars (level 5) are not yet available. Several manufacturers are running prototypes that are already being tested in pilot trials, some of them in real traffic situations.

An excerpt of current pilot trials and test runs:

  • California, USA: 17 different companies are testing their respective technologies on public roads in California
  • Pittsburgh, USA: Personal transport provider UBER is testing self-driving cars with customers
  • Colorado, USA: An autonomous truck is capable of driving 120 miles on the highway to deliver goods
  • Even the most conservative estimates expect trucks driving autonomously on freeways to arrive as early as 2025. Market analysts expect that a third of newly purchased trucks will be equipped with sophisticated automation systems (level 4 or 5) in 2025.
  • Europe: autonomous low-speed mini buses serve several European cities in the framework of the CityMobil2 project
  • Europe: In the framework of the Truck Platooning Challenge, networked truck platoons have started in different countries and arrived together in Amsterdam
  • Austria: A self-driving bus is tested in Salzburg.

Like large automakers, the Austrian Road Safety Board KFV also expects to see fully autonomous (level 5), mass-produced vehicles in traffic within the next 10 years. While the technology is already highly sophisticated, innumerable logistical questions are still to be answered. For the Austrian Road Safety Board KFV, research into resulting new forms of interaction in mixed traffic as well as new types of accidents, will be essential.

How is Austria contributing to the development of self-driving cars?

In Austria, the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology’s action plan Automatisiert – Vernetzt – Mobil (German for ‘Automated – Linked – Mobile’) defines a number of goals aimed at pooling research activity and preparing the infrastructure, legal framework and economy for automated driving by 2018. Among others, the action plan’s main objectives are to strengthen Austrian research and economy in this field with a subsidy package worth 20 million Euros, to extend the digital infrastructure for purposes of automated driving and safeguarding potentials when it comes to traffic safety.

Initial steps have already been implemented successfully: the 33rd amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act (KFG) allows for the testing of automated driving systems on Austria’s roads and an Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) tender process aimed at establishing suitable test tracks is currently underway. Recently, a self-driving bus has been tested in Salzburg. Starting next year, a series of new practical tests will be performed once the test tracks commissioned by the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology have been established.

Equipping individual freeway sections with extensive digital systems (C-ITS corridor on the S1 freeway) provides a basis for tests on linking vehicles and infrastructure and evaluating the gathered data.

The Austrian Road Safety Board’s role in this process is to promote traffic safety in the context of these Austrian efforts and putting the human back in the center of this rapidly advancing technological development as it thinks that – when it comes to traffic safety – an equivalent societal and individual development is an essential prerequisite for the successful implementation of automated driving.

What about the legal issues?

The 33rd amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act (KFG) signed in July laid down the first tracks on the way to automated driving. Previously, certain assistance systems or automated driving systems were only to be used if the driver always held the steering wheel with at least one hand. The amendment presented by the Transport Ministry contains regulations that would allow automated driving under certain circumstances. Corresponding future directives will clearly specify which driving tasks may be transferred to automated driving systems under what circumstances.

Outside of trial runs, we will be confronted with a wide range of unanswered legal questions:

  • Future vehicle function registration processes, especially in case of over-the-air updates as they are common for computer programs, thus making the vehicle itself a changeable program.
  • Questions of liability: who will be liable in case of an accident caused by a technical problem? – the car manufacturer, the supplier, the (non-)driver or even the lawmakers and registration authority?
  • Data protection regulations
  • Standardization of vehicle functions, especially in the context of safety
  • Perhaps the legal market opening of vehicle systems to prevent one automaker or operating system provider from gaining a monopoly
  • Adapting driver training and Road Traffic Acts in mixed traffic
  • Trans-national standardization of all these points

Advantages and disadvantages of autonomous vehicles

ViennaZWA thinks that self-driving vehicles (level 5) have a specific advantage when it comes to the integration of groups of people with impaired mobility (e.g. blind people) and, in general, when it comes to making public transport (the ‘last mile’) more flexible. Its highest potential, however, lies in increased traffic safety.

Disadvantages from the traffic safety perspective can be found on the way to fully autonomous traffic and new hazards arising from mixed traffic and the levels of automation before fully autonomous vehicles are introduced. Drivers of partially automated vehicles will only be required to interfere in critical situations when their vehicle (level 3 and 4) returns control to them which might cause problems resulting from the drivers’ lack of driving experience. While drivers of autonomous vehicles (level 5) will no longer have this problem, years of mixed traffic leading up to fully autonomous traffic will yield critical situations involving unprotected traffic participants and conventional vehicles that – unlike an autonomous vehicle – might not adhere to all rules of traffic all the time.

What are autonomous vehicles still missing?

The technology is already highly advanced. Experts already talk of self-driving vehicles as if they were a matter of fact. Actually, however, the overwhelming majority of people struggle with existing assistance systems or do not know how to use them correctly. Thus, we think that the success of self-driving vehicles will highly depend on supporting the people on their way to this new age with compact information.

The technology will not be the only important part in their implementation but rather unanswered questions regarding laws, registration, liability, layout, infrastructure, standardization and more. As well as the human factor.

1 SAE standard for automation levels. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAE_J3016

2 http://arstechnica.com/cars/2016/10/more-autonomous-vehicles-are-coming-to-california-and-iowa/

3 https://newsroom.uber.com/pittsburgh-self-driving-uber/

4 https://techcrunch.com/2016/10/25/ubers-otto-self-driving-truck-delivers-its-first-payload-50k-beers/

5 McKinsey&Company: Delivering change. The transformation of commercial transport by 2025. Advanced Industries. September 2016. Page 12.

6 http://www.citymobil2.eu/en/

7 https://www.eutruckplatooning.com/default.aspx

8 Salzburger Nachrichten (19.10.2016): Selbstfahrender Bus bahnt sich seinen Weg durch Salzburg. http://www.salzburg.com/nachrichten/salzburg/chronik/sn/artikel/selbstfahrender-bus-bahnt-sich-seinen-weg-durch-salzburg-218743/

9 Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology: Action plan Automatisiert – Vernetzt – Mobil (German for ‘Automated – Linked – Mobile’) June 2016.

10 33rd amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act https://www.parlament.gv.at/PAKT/VHG/XXV/ME/ME_00208/index.shtml

11 Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG): Mobilität der Zukunft - Testumgebungen für automatisiertes Fahren - Ausschreibung Frühjahr 2016. https://www.ffg.at/sondierung-testumgebungen-call2016

12 Salzburger Nachrichten (19.10.2016): Selbstfahrender Bus bahnt sich seinen Weg durch Salzburg. http://www.salzburg.com/nachrichten/salzburg/chronik/sn/artikel/selbstfahrender-bus-bahnt-sich-seinen-weg-durch-salzburg-218743/