What's the Difference Between an Autonomous and a Driverless Car?
Also called autonomous cars, robotic cars, and self-driving cars, truly driverless cars were essentially the stuff of science fiction until relatively recently.
Definitions vary, but autonomous cars are typically defined as versions of our current vehicles that are capable of taking over from the driver under certain circumstances, whereas driverless cars are even more automated and usually have no steering wheel or pedals.
The involvement of Google (and now Waymo) in developing the necessary software for the operation of these vehicles has increased public interest in technology and functionality issues as well as increasing investment.
In this article, I explain...
- the advantages and disadvantages of driverless cars, presented in the form of a pros-and-cons list
- whether driverless cars can be as safe or safer than human-driven ones
- which type is better for the environment
- how driverless cars work
- how the various levels of a car's automation are classified
- where you might see driverless cars on the road today
- a brief history of their development
20 Advantages of Driverless Cars
- Without the need for a driver, cars could become mini leisure rooms. Without the need for controls, there would be more space available inside the vehicle and no need for passengers to face forwards. In effect, they could be comfortable environments for travel.
- Entertainment technology, such as video screens, could be used without any concern of distracting the driver.
- Human drivers often bend rules and take risks, even breaking laws, but driverless cars will obey every rule and posted speed limit, making the roads safer for everyone.
- Over 80% of car crashes in the US are caused by driver error. These accidents would be minimized or prevented by the introduction of driverless cars. Drunk and drugged driving would also become a thing of the past.
- Travelers would be able to journey overnight and sleep for the duration.
- Traffic could be coordinated more smoothly in urban areas to prevent bottlenecks and traffic jams at busy times. Commute times could be reduced drastically.
- Driving fatigue and getting lost would be things of the past.
- Sensory technology could potentially perceive the environment better than humans could, seeing farther ahead, better in poor visibility, and detecting smaller and more subtle obstacles. Plus, several cameras might be used at once, and cameras have no blind spots, so they will be more aware and vigilant than a human driver ever could be.
- Speed limits could be safely increased, thereby shortening journey times.
- Difficult maneuvering and parking would be quicker, less stressful and require no special skills.
- People who have difficulties driving—such as disabled people, older citizens, and children—would be able to experience the freedom of solo car travel.
- There would no longer be a need for driving licenses or driving tests.
- With fewer associated risks, insurance premiums for car owners would go down drastically.
- Efficient travel means fuel savings for travelers.
- Greater efficiency would mean fewer emissions and less pollution from cars, meaning a lower negative environmental impact.
- Reduced need for safety gaps, lanes, and shoulders means that road capacities for vehicles would be significantly increased.
- Passengers will experience a smoother riding experience.
- Self-aware cars would lead to a reduction in car theft.
- Road rage will be reduced or disappear.
- Parking can become completely automated with no need to drive around looking for spaces. The car could even just drop you off and then go park itself, and return when requested.
17 Disadvantages of Driverless Cars
- A self-driving car would be unaffordable for most people, likely costing over $100,000 initially. It could be many years before the average person owns one.
- Truckers, taxi drivers, Uber/Lyft, and delivery drivers will gradually lose their jobs as autonomous vehicles take over.
- A computer malfunction—even just a minor glitch—could easily cause a far worse accident than anything human error might typically incur.
- Autonomous cars have great trouble distinguishing and determining the intentions of human drivers on the roads.
- Since driverless cars obey all the rules and regulations, this means that both the individual vehicle and the larger flow of traffic might be slower and less organic. These vehicles have been described as behaving like student drivers: slow, conservative, and timid. On a road shared with human drivers, they may be annoying to navigate around for human drivers.
- If the car crashes without a driver, who's fault is it: the software designer or the owner of the vehicle? Driverless systems will definitely trigger many debates about legal, ethical, and financial responsibility.
- Driverless cars would rely on the collection of location and user information, quite possibly triggering major privacy concerns.
- Hackers getting into the vehicle's software and controlling or affecting its operation would be a major concern.
- Maintenance would have to be overseen. Some process of governmental oversight would have to be instated to make sure every driverless car is safe.
- Driverless vehicles have been shown to have difficulty operating in certain types of weather. Heavy rain interferes with roof-mounted laser sensors, and snow can interfere with cameras.
- Reading road signs is challenging for a robot. They are therefore almost entirely reliant on computer data. GPS and other technologies might not register obstacles like potholes, recent changes in road conditions, such as roadworks, or a public event.
- As drivers become more accustomed to not driving, their proficiency and experience will diminish. Should they then ever need to drive under certain circumstances, there will be problems.
- The road system and infrastructure would need radical upgrades for driverless vehicles to operate efficiently on them. Traffic and street lights, for instance, would likely all need altering.
- Self-driving cars would be great news for terrorists, as those vehicles could be loaded with explosives and used as moving bombs.
- Multiple ethical dilemmas could arise, which a computer might struggle to deal with. Faced with a choice between plowing into a group of schoolchildren or going off a bridge and killing all its passengers, what will the vehicle do? Should the vehicle swerve to avoid animals in the road, or always prioritize the safety and comfort of passengers?
- Human behavior can be complex and unpredictable. Drunks, heavy foot traffic, jaywalkers, and hand signals are difficult for a computer to understand. In situations where drivers need to deal with erratic human behavior or communicate with one another, the driverless vehicle might fail.
- How would the police interact with driverless vehicles, especially in the case of accidents or crimes?
61% of people say they wouldn't ride in a self-driving car... and only 21% said they'd be willing to ride in one.
— According to a survey by the Brookings Institution
Which Are Safer: Driverless or Human-Driven Cars?
According to data from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute's report, which compared all the available data on all collisions of self-driving cars with statistics involving human-driven ones, driverless vehicles get into more crashes, but those crashes are less serious than those caused by conventional vehicles.
Below are some key findings:
- Driverless vehicles had more crashes. 9.1 crashes per million miles driven (compared with 4.1 crashes per million miles for human-driven ones).
- Driverless cars had a higher rate of injury, but those injuries were not as dire as those incurred in conventional vehicles. Driverless cars had 0.36 injuries per crash (compared with 0.25 for conventional vehicles). However, these injuries were minor compared with those sustained in conventional vehicle crashes.
- However, the driverless vehicles were NOT responsible for any of the crashes.
- In the incidents they looked at, driverless cars also never hit bicyclists or pedestrians, something that human-driven vehicles often did.
Are Driverless Cars Better for the Environment?
Today, transportation is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions and pollution. There's a chance that driverless cars could help.
- Many autonomous vehicles are being designed to be entirely electric, so they'd save on fossil fuels and reduce emissions and pollution.
- If we all used taxis, then we would be sharing those vehicles and we'd need fewer cars, collectively. We'd need fewer cars and we'd prevent the environmental cost of manufacturing more cars.
- Many of these vehicles are built for more efficient fuel usage, and they can be programmed to take the most fuel-efficient routes and can be programmed to operate at maximum efficiency all the time.
How Do Driverless Cars Work?
Driverless cars sense their surroundings using technology such as LiDAR, radar, GPS, and computer vision. The sensory information they gather is then processed to direct appropriate pathways for the vehicle to take, avoiding obstacles and also obeying the road signs and rules.
The car uses a digital map which can be constantly updated according to sensory input. This allows the vehicle to adapt to changing situations as well as travel through previously unknown territories.
Technologies That Autonomous Vehicles Require:
- Video is used to read road signs and traffic lights and keep tabs on pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles.
- Radar sensors keep track of the position of nearby vehicles.
- LiDAR sensors monitor the road's borders and lane markings and other things in the vicinity.
- While parking, ultrasonic wheel sensors monitor the position of curbs and other vehicles.
- A central computer collects and analyses all this data to help it steer, accelerate, and brake, as needed.
Different Levels of Autonomy in Vehicles
This formal classification system for automated cars has been proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Level 0: Driver has complete control of vehicle at all times.
Level 1: Some vehicle controls are automated, e.g. automatic braking.
Level 2: Two or more controls can be automated at the same time, e.g. cruise control and lane keeping.
Level 3: The driver can yield control in certain circumstances.
Level 4: Driver not expected to play any part in the driving process at all.
Level 5: The vehicle performs autonomously in every scenario, including extreme and unusual conditions.
Are self-driving, autonomous, robotic, and driverless cars all the same?
Insiders don't use these terms interchangeably, but most people see them as synonyms. Technically, a self-driving car is less advanced than a driverless one, since a driverless car (Level 4 or 5) never requires a person to take control—in fact, it may even lack the steering wheel and brakes that would make that possible.
An insider might use the terms "driverless" and "autonomous" almost interchangeably to refer to a vehicle that requires little or no driver participation, while the terms "self-driving" and "automated" have broader, less precise meanings.
Today, most vehicles are at least partially self-driving (Level 1, 2, and 3) with automatic brake systems, cruise control, and lane assistance. Most cars on the road now are automated to some degree, but a merely automated car doesn't have the capability or autonomy that an autonomous car has.
In the US, there are very few legal, fully-autonomous and driverless vehicles on the road, unless they're being tested. You may see a few autonomous (Level 3, 4, or 5) prototypes driving around, although they usually contain a human person with access to the controls in case of emergency.
What about those driverless taxis we've all heard about, the ones that are supposed to take the human drivers' jobs away?
Many companies are moving to make this idea a reality. For example, in 2018, Google's break-off company started offering driverless taxi service to passengers in a 100-mile zone of Phoenix suburbs. The company says it has logged more than 10 million miles testing its vehicles on public streets. This service, called Waymo One, usually includes a human "co-driver" who's there to take over the controls in case of emergency, but not always, and Waymo says it will eventually phase out these co-drivers (although they don't say when).
The companies who are testing on public roads and experimenting with driverless taxi services have not been very public or transparent about their findings or activities. Although Waymo calls itself "the safest driver on the road," surveys have shown that people are hesitant to trust the technology, and for good reason: In March of 2018, a pedestrian was hit and killed by a self-driving Uber in Arizona.
Will driverless taxis be cheaper than Ubers or Lyfts?
In Arizona, using a driverless taxi costs about the same as using a regular, human-driven service. The prohibitive cost of the vehicle itself negates any savings in human labor. When the technology and cost of building them become cheaper, that's when professional human drivers will have something to worry about.
What's It Like Riding Inside a Driverless Car?
Where Are Driverless Cars Legal in the US?
As no state has outlawed the technology, strictly speaking it's not illegal anywhere in the US to own or operate a self-driving car. However, many states have either passed specific legislation to regulate or authorize the use of autonomous vehicles, or are in the process of doing so.
As of 2018, thirty states—Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Washington D.C., and Wisconsin—have enacted legislation related to autonomous vehicles.
When Will We See Driverless Cars on Public Roads?
With so many states moving to enact legislation and so many companies testing their vehicles on the roads, you may have already seen a driverless vehicle...and perhaps you didn't even notice. However, companies and cities alike are being very hush-hush about these tests, since the prevailing public sentiment is not entirely positive.
When Will I Be Able to Buy a Driverless Car?
According to automaker and technology company predictions, Level 4 vehicles could be available to the public within a few years. However, they will likely cost over $100,000 and will therefore be unaffordable for most people.
A Brief History of Self-Driving Vehicles
The origins of automated cars go back to the 1920s, when experiments on automated driving systems (ADS) started being conducted.
Technology significantly advanced and trials started being conducted in the 1950s, but it wasn't until the introduction of computers in the 1980s that truly autonomous vehicles became a possibility.
Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Bosch, Nissan, Renault, Toyota, the University of Parma, Oxford University, and Google (now Waymo) have all developed prototype vehicles since then.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Are driverless cars being developed for India?
Answer: India may well get driverless cars much later than more developed countries, according to most industry experts. This is not because of the car technology, but rather the challenges of India's chaotic roads. As well as inadequate signage and badly maintained roads, drivers face a diversity of hazards, including auto-rickshaws, rickshaws, trucks, cycles, hard-carts, cows, elephants and camels. The Indian government may also desire to protect the jobs of worker drivers in the near future, rather than see them be made unemployed by driverless vehicles.
Question: Are there only driverless cars at the moment, or are there trials for other vehicles as well?
Answer: Currently, cars are the only road vehicles being trialed. Other types of vehicle will likely follow later.
© 2015 Paul Goodman