The era of self-driving cars is going wild with many advanced technologies allowing them to navigate and make real-time decisions on the road. Numerous technologies are being developed and applied in the automotive industry, such as Big Data, IoT (Internet of Things), ML (Machine Learning), and Blockchain. Notably, the presence of AI (Artificial Intelligence) is a pivotal turning point, not only as a precursor to autonomous vehicles but also as a means to enhance passenger safety – a top concern today – and much more.

Global Automotive Artificial Intelligence Market 2019-2030 (Source: Statista)

1. Autonomous Vehicles: 6 Level of Automation

Autonomous Vehicles (AVs): These are vehicles designed to navigate and operate with varying degrees of human intervention. They utilize a combination of sensors (like cameras, radar, and lidar), software, and complex algorithms to perceive their surroundings, make decisions, and control their movement.

The 6 Levels of Autonomy (as defined by SAE International)

  • Level 0: No Automation: the vehicle is fully controlled by a human who must perform all driving tasks 
  • Level 1: Driver Assistance: The vehicle can assist the driver with specific tasks such as steering OR accelerating/braking, but the human is required to remain fully engaged and aware of the surroundings.
  • Level 2: Partial Automation: The vehicle can control some features under certain conditions (e.g., Advanced Driver Assistance Systems), but it still requires humans to remain focused and ready to take over at any time. 
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation: The vehicle can undertake the majority of driving tasks in certain scenarios (e.g., highway driving), though a driver is still necessary when the systems fail to control. 
  • Level 4: High Automation: the vehicle can do all driving tasks, and may not be crucial to take over. However, It still has limitations to handle special situations and geographic range. 
  • Level 5: Full Automation: The vehicle can control all driving tasks under any conditions, no human interaction is required. It serves primarily as a "robotaxi" and may lack standard controls like a steering wheel or pedals.

However, there are currently no commercial vehicles that approach level 4 and 5 autonomy. The vision to transition from level 3 to 4 to 5 is still a dynamic process. While the milestone in the development of AVs is Level 5, it may not be the final destination. Even with the capability to handle all driving tasks under all conditions, there are inherent limitations to what the current situation defines as “fully autonomous”. 

2. The presence of AI in AVs today

As of mid-2024, the automotive industry's progress towards fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) is steadily advancing, with AI playing a pivotal role in the current Level 2 and Level 3 systems. While not yet achieving complete autonomy, these systems showcase the significant impact of AI in several key areas.

4 types and positioning of sensors in an automated vehicle (Source: Internet)

Perception: The Eyes and Ears of AVs

AI-powered perception algorithms act as the sensory backbone of AVs. They process the vast amounts of data collected from an array of sensors – cameras, radar, lidar – transforming it into a comprehensive understanding of the vehicle's surroundings. This entails identifying and classifying objects like pedestrians, cyclists, other vehicles, and traffic signs. By mimicking human perception, AI enables AVs to "see" and "hear" their environment with remarkable accuracy, paving the way for informed decision-making.

Decision-Making: The Brain Behind the Wheel

Once the environment is perceived, AI-driven decision-making algorithms take the reins. These sophisticated models analyze the processed sensory data, factoring in real-time information such as the vehicle's speed, position, and the behavior of other road users. Based on this holistic assessment, the AI makes split-second decisions regarding crucial actions like braking, accelerating, changing lanes, or maneuvering through complex intersections. This level of intelligent decision-making enhances both safety and efficiency on the road.

Path Planning: Navigating the Road Ahead

In addition to reacting to immediate surroundings, AI also plays a crucial role in long-term planning. Path planning algorithms utilize AI to chart the optimal route for the vehicle to reach its destination. This involves considering a multitude of factors, including traffic conditions, road layouts, obstacles, and the desired time of arrival. By constantly recalibrating the path based on real-time data, AI ensures that AVs navigate efficiently, avoiding congestion and minimizing travel time.

3. Case Study of AI in Autonomous Driving Assistance

Tesla Autopilot (Level 2)

Tesla Autopilot is an outstanding example of AI in modern vehicles, showcasing Level 2 of autonomy at its finest. By seamlessly integrating several AI-driven features, it redefines the driving experience:

The cockpit of Tesla and the display of AI detection (Source: Internet)

  • Traffic-Aware Cruise Control: Through a network of cameras and radar, this feature maintains a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. It intelligently adjusts your car's speed, even in stop-and-go traffic, easing the burden of long commutes and highway journeys.
  • Autosteer:  On well-marked highways, Autosteer takes the wheel, gently guiding your car within its lane. This feature not only reduces driver fatigue but also contributes to a smoother, more consistent driving experience.
  • Navigate on Autopilot: Elevating highway driving to a new level, this feature takes on the responsibility of lane changes, navigating highway exits and entrances, and even suggesting the appropriate off-ramp. It's a glimpse into the future of autonomous navigation.
  • Smart Summon:  Imagine your car maneuvering through a crowded parking lot and coming to pick you up. Smart Summon makes this a reality, allowing your Tesla to navigate autonomously in parking spaces, simplifying the last leg of your journey.

While Tesla Autopilot still requires driver supervision and has its limitations, it undoubtedly demonstrates the potential of AI to enhance road safety, optimize traffic flow, and fundamentally change the way we interact with our vehicles.

Waymo (Level 4)

Waymo reached Level 4 of self-driving technology, representing a significant milestone in autonomous vehicle development. This advanced system enables vehicles to operate without human intervention in specific geographic areas and under defined conditions. The Waymo Driver, as the system is called, utilizes a comprehensive suite of sensors, powerful AI algorithms, and extensive real-world testing to achieve this level of autonomy.

 Waymo’s Level 4 autonomous system has overall 29 cameras, 6 radars, and 5 long/short ranges Lidars (Source: Internet)

Key features of Waymo's Level 4 self-driving cars include:

  • Full Autonomy in Defined Areas: The Waymo Driver can handle all aspects of driving within its operational design domain (ODD), which provides for specific areas like well-mapped cities or designated routes.
  • No Human Intervention Required: In these defined areas, the Waymo Driver operates without the need for a human safety driver behind the wheel. Passengers can relax and enjoy the ride while the car navigates autonomously.
  • Advanced Sensor Fusion: The system combines data from lidar, radar, cameras, and other sensors to create a detailed understanding of its environment, ensuring safe and efficient navigation.
    Robust AI Algorithms: Machine learning algorithms power the Waymo Driver's perception, prediction, and decision-making capabilities, allowing it to navigate complex traffic scenarios and handle unexpected situations.
  • Continuous Learning: Waymo's fleet of self-driving cars constantly collects data, which is used to refine and improve the AI algorithms, ensuring the system becomes more intelligent and capable over time.

Waymo's Level 4 technology is currently being deployed in commercial “robotaxi” services in select cities, offering a glimpse into the future of transportation where autonomous vehicles can safely and reliably transport people without human intervention.

4. Limitations and Beyond

Despite the immense potential, AI in autonomous vehicles faces several limitations. Current AI systems still struggle with unpredictable real-world scenarios, such as adverse weather conditions, complex traffic patterns, or unexpected pedestrian behavior. They can also face challenges in making ethical decisions in critical situations, like choosing between protecting the vehicle occupants and avoiding collisions with pedestrians. Additionally, concerns about cybersecurity vulnerabilities and public acceptance of fully autonomous vehicles pose significant obstacles to their widespread adoption.

Looking toward the future, AI's role in autonomous vehicles is predicted to grow exponentially. Advancements in machine learning, sensor technologies, and computational power will enable AVs to perceive their environment more accurately, make smarter decisions, and adapt to new situations more effectively. We can anticipate the emergence of Level 5 autonomous vehicles capable of operating safely and reliably without human intervention. AI-powered AVs are also expected to revolutionize transportation systems, leading to reduced traffic congestion, improved road safety, and increased accessibility for individuals with limited mobility. Moreover, AI could empower AVs to communicate with each other and with smart city infrastructure, creating a seamless and efficient transportation network.


Related: The Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles

5. In summary 

The automotive world is witnessing a revolution fueled by AI, with self-driving cars at the forefront. Technologies like Big Data, IoT, and ML are enhancing AV capabilities, with AI playing a pivotal role in perception, decision-making, and path planning. While current Level 2 and 3 systems demonstrate significant progress, challenges remain in addressing complex scenarios, ethical considerations, and public acceptance. However, the future is bright, with AI-powered AVs poised to achieve full autonomy, transforming transportation and paving the way for safer, more efficient roads.