Automakers define “autonomy” according to a scale established by SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers). The scale tops out with control-free pods at Level 5, but even adaptive cruise control counts as Level 1.
What most people think of as full autonomy begins with Level 4, in which a car can handle the complete driving task without needing to defer to a human driver—in certain cases. Think of a car that can drive on the highway but may need a human to take over at the exit, or one that can navigate metropolitan areas that have been 3-D mapped in excruciating detail—and at enormous cost—by companies eager to cut their overhead by eliminating human drivers. Leading innovators at two of the industry’s largest and most powerful suppliers tell us they expect Level 4 autonomous vehicles to hit our roads by 2020, but only for fleet use. For the foreseeable future, the requisite technology will remain prohibitively expensive for private owners. And if you’re waiting on a Google pod of your own, don’t hold your breath. In even the best technophilic outlook, cars like that don’t start to become widely available and affordable until 2050 or so. But our own expectation trends closer to never. Is never good for you?
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