What is a self driving car? How does it work?

  • Self-driving cars use sensors, cameras, radar, and AI to navigate and operate without human intervention.
  • The SAE defines six levels of driving automation, from no automation (Level 0) to full automation (Level 5).
  • Benefits of self-driving cars include increased safety, improved efficiency, enhanced accessibility, and greater convenience, though challenges such as technical issues, ethical dilemmas, and regulatory hurdles remain.

Self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, represent a revolutionary shift in the realm of transportation. These vehicles are designed to navigate and operate without human intervention, utilising a combination of sensors, cameras, radar, and artificial intelligence (AI) to perceive their environment and make driving decisions. This technology promises to transform not only how we travel but also how we live and work.

The technology inside self-driving cars

The core of self-driving technology lies in its sophisticated array of sensors and AI algorithms. These vehicles are equipped with LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, which use laser light to measure distances and create detailed 3D maps of the surroundings. Cameras and radar systems complement LIDAR by providing additional data on the vehicle’s environment, such as detecting obstacles, reading traffic signals, and identifying pedestrians.

AI and machine learning play a critical role in processing the vast amounts of data collected by these sensors. By analysing this data in real-time, the AI system can make informed decisions about accelerating, braking, steering, and navigating complex traffic situations. The continuous learning aspect of AI allows these systems to improve over time, adapting to new driving scenarios and enhancing safety and efficiency.

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Levels of autonomy

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines six levels of driving automation, ranging from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 5 (full automation).

Level 0

No automation. The human driver is responsible for all driving tasks.

Level 1

Driver Assistance. The vehicle can assist with either steering or acceleration/deceleration, but not both simultaneously.

Level 2

Partial Automation. The vehicle can control both steering and acceleration/deceleration, but the human driver must remain engaged and monitor the driving environment.

Level 3

Conditional Automation. The vehicle can perform all driving tasks under certain conditions, but the driver must be ready to take control when requested.

Level 4

High Automation. The vehicle can perform all driving tasks and monitor the driving environment in specific conditions, with no human intervention required.

Level 5

Full Automation. The vehicle can perform all driving tasks under all conditions, with no human intervention required at any time.

Benefits of self-driving cars

Safety: Autonomous vehicles are expected to reduce the number of accidents caused by human error, which accounts for the majority of traffic incidents. Advanced sensors and AI can react faster and more accurately than human drivers.

Efficiency: Self-driving cars can optimise routes and reduce traffic congestion, leading to shorter travel times and lower emissions.

Accessibility: Autonomous vehicles can provide mobility solutions for individuals who are unable to drive, such as the elderly and disabled.

Convenience: With self-driving cars, passengers can utilise travel time for work, relaxation, or other activities, transforming the commuting experience.

Challenges and considerations

Despite the promise, several challenges remain in the widespread adoption of self-driving cars. Technical issues such as sensor accuracy in adverse weather conditions, ethical dilemmas in decision-making algorithms, and regulatory hurdles need to be addressed. Moreover, public acceptance and trust in autonomous technology are crucial for its success.

The road ahead

Self-driving cars are on the cusp of becoming a mainstream reality. As technology advances and regulatory frameworks evolve, we can expect to see more autonomous vehicles on our roads. The journey towards fully autonomous transportation is complex and requires collaboration between tech companies, automakers, governments, and the public. Nevertheless, the potential benefits make it a pursuit worth striving for, promising a safer, more efficient, and accessible future for transportation.


Sissy Li

Sissy Li, a news reporter at BTW media dedicated in Fintech and Blockchain. She graduated from Macau University of Technology and Science. Send tips to s.li@btw.media.

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