Volkswagen Executive Speculates That Fully Self-Driving Cars May Not Be Realistic

Chris Chin, the Drive:

A quick primer on the now-industry-standard SAE International rules on how to discuss self-driving abilities: Level 0 is no automation whatsoever. Level 1 is partial assistance with certain aspects of driving, like lane keep assist or adaptive cruise control. Level 2 is a step up to systems that can take control of the vehicle in certain situations, like Tesla’s Autopilot or Cadillac’s Super Cruise, while still requiring the driver to pay attention.

Get past that and we enter the realm of speculation: Level 3 promises full computer control without supervision under defined conditions during a journey, Level 4 is start-to-finish autonomous tech limited only by virtual safeguards like a geofence, and Level 5 is the total hands-off, go literally anywhere at the push of a button experience where the vehicle might not even have physical controls.

Sitting down with WardsAuto at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, VW Autonomy’s Alex Hitzinger said Level 4 might be the realistic limit for what automakers can build. He wasn’t shy in pointing out the relative difficulty of trying for full Level 5 autonomy.

I am skeptical that generally available cars will make the jump from third-level autonomy to fourth-level within this decade, and I have no expectation that any car will get to fifth-level autonomy in my lifetime. I simply don’t think it’s reasonable that a vehicle will be able to drive itself anywhere on Earth that can be traversed by cars today under any weather conditions — without the intervention of a human driver.

One of the reasons auto manufacturers have given for their interest in autonomous vehicles is their ability to reduce collisions. If that’s the case, why not set a goal of making entirely reliable collision avoidance systems? I know that’s less cool than a car that can drive itself, but it’s much more practical.1

I am also prepared to eat humble pie.

  1. Better still would be greater investment in public transit which, in some circumstances, is fully automated. I know this is even duller than collision avoidance systems, but it’s also better for cities. ↥︎