For over 10 years, self-driving cars have been in development. Over the course of a decade, self-driving cars have seemed more like a novelty than a realistic mainstream transportation alternative.

New rules proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, have made the reality of mass self-driving cars in the US, much more realistic.

But what exactly do car makers mean when they talk about self-driving cars? As it turns out, there are five clearly defined levels of autonomous transport. And here they are:

Level 1: A single automated element

The simplest level of self-driving cars is when a single element of the vehicle is controlled via onboard LiDar or cameras. This has been around since the very late 90s and early 00s in the form of adaptive cruise control, which manages the speed of a car depending on the traffic in front.

Another example of level 1 autonomy is lane keep assist, where the car senses the white lines of multi-lane roads and can adjust the steering automatically to keep the car in the lane.

Level 2: Two or more systems automatically controlled

Level 2 autonomous transport is defined as when two or more elements of the driving process are controlled automatically. This means a car can often accelerate, brake and steer itself in specific circumstances, but the driver has to remain in control at all times and be able to override the system.

Level 3: The car can fully take over driving areas critical to safety

This is where the autonomous element of the car really starts to come in; the car really can drive itself entirely for significant periods of time. This is really a refined, nuanced version of level 2, but drivers can be hands-off for longer. They will still need to be on hand to intervene at any time, however.

Level 4: full autonomy, but only in specific areas

With level 4 self-driving cars, sophisticated HD mapping and super-fast car-to-car communication mean that you’ll be able to completely let the car drive itself, but only within specific geographical areas.

Level 5: Who needs a driver?

This is the goal of those working on autonomous transport: a self-driving system so sophisticated that it can drive itself without a human driver even present. This generation of vehicle will be able to literally drive itself anywhere, on any road. Analysts predict up to 21 million level 5 vehicles could be on the road by 2035.

What did the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration propose?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed to tweak many of their standards and regulations to help lead the way for widespread use of self-driving cars. Currently, the new rules would impact driverless cars for deliveries, not human transportation. Some of the tweaks included…

• Preventing children from riding in the front passenger seat

• Changing the airbag placement in vehicles

• Clarify the definition of the word ‘driver’ (either human or system)

General Motors and the NHTSA

This news will no doubt be appreciated by General Motors who requested the above changes to NHTSA to get their self-driving cars on the streets of the US.

However, the proposed changes do not meet all of GM’s requests, as vehicles will still need to have wing mirrors and dashboard controls, which GM request to be removed from NHTSA federal regulations for self-driving cars.

GM, and any other individuals/companies, have two months to comment on the proposals by the NHTSA before they are finalised. This allows self-driving companies to present the changes they need for federal approval of self-driving cars on a large scale.

What benefits could self-driving cars bring to the streets?

• Faster, efficient delivery and taxi services
• Less pollution, as all self-driving cars are proposed to be zero-emissions
• Fewer traffic incidents, self-driving cars will not be subject to human error (e.g. they won’t make mistakes because they are tired)

When will be mass self-driving cars in the UK?

With such rapid developments in AI and sensor technology, the reality of seeing fully autonomous vehicles around the world is perhaps a closer reality than ever. Providing self-driving car companies continue to seek legal approval and alter legal guidelines where necessary.