Home Technology Everything you should know about autonomous vehicles and how they work

Everything you should know about autonomous vehicles and how they work

With large-scale investments, comprehensive legislation and a number of test-centres across the country already in place, the UK’s commitment to autonomous vehicles is clear. However, whilst there are small pockets of the country where knowledge about the technology is pervasive and its not uncommon to see driverless cars being tested on the streets, most people are still unsure of what it actually means for a vehicle to be autonomous.

Here, we provide a short guide to autonomous vehicles, looking at the technology that powers them and when you can expect to see them on the roads.

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What is an autonomous vehicle?

Connected vehicles, driverless cars, robotics cars, CAVs (connected and autonomous vehicles) are all terms that are commonly used to describe autonomous vehicles. But what does it all mean?

Simply put, a truly autonomous vehicle is one which can guide itself without human intervention or oversight. However, whilst fully autonomous vehicles have long existed in science-fiction, most experts agree that we are still a long way off having vehicles on our public roads that don’t require any level of human direction.

Currently, there are vehicles on our roads that can move without the need for a human to be driving them, take Tesla cars and the controversial ‘autopilot’ feature, for example. However, all these vehicles still require a person to be present in the vehicle whilst it is moving with the ability to override any decisions made by the car and take over the manual driving of the vehicle if necessary. The vehicles currently being trailed on public streets across the globe range in autonomy from Levels 1 to level 3.

What are the levels of autonomy?

The SMMT (The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) has outlined five levels of vehicle autonomy, ranging from driver assisted to fully autonomous.

Level 1 is the lowest and is described as ‘driver assistance’. Level 1 vehicles have a single automated aspect, but the driver is very much still in charge.

Level 2 vehicles have ‘partial automation’, where chips control two or more elements. In broad terms, this is where we are today, where vehicles are intelligent enough to weave speed and steering systems together using multiple data sources.

Level 3 vehicles are defined as having ‘conditional automation’. This is where a vehicle can manage safety-critical functions. Although all aspects of driving can be done automatically, the driver must be on hand to intervene.

Level 4 is ‘high automation’. This is where vehicles will be fully autonomous in controlled areas. When Level 4 vehicles become available, you will see them driving in geofenced urban areas, harnessing emerging technology in HD mapping, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, machine vision and advanced sensors.

Finally, Level 5 vehicles are ‘fully autonomous’, anywhere, in all environmental conditions. The key difference between this and level 4 is that the human driver is optional.

What technology is in an autonomous vehicle and how does this make them work?

The main technologies that facilitate the autonomy of driverless vehicles are radars, sensors, GPS tracking and software.

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