Just like any intelligent robots, self-driving cars have had more than their fair share of outlandish claims. I've been known to poke fun at some of them (See Humanoids and Robotaxis).
But today I'd like to describe a self-driving feature that seems like a genuine advance, and which offers drivers something of value today.
Consider this post-Covid scenario: driving home after a long day, you find yourself crawling bumper-to-bumper on the Southeast Expressway in Boston or on the Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A.
Does this scenario stress you out? Do you get as frustrated as I do just reading about it? Then you might be in the market for a computerized traffic chauffeur.
If only your car could drive all by itself in stop-and-go traffic, it might free you up to do other things. The good news: such a car seems to be close---very close.
Honda claims to have a working version, and Mercedes-Benz this week got approval from the German government to make an automated traffic chauffeur available on about 8,000 miles of highway. Their new 2022 S-Class sedans plan to include it.
SAE, a body of automotive engineers, has a six-level standard to sort smart features, starting from level zero (human driving only) to level five (full self-driving).
Today you can purchase cars with Level 0--2 driver assistance features, like lane-assist that steers to keep you in your lane, or adaptive cruise control that keeps a certain distance from the car in front of you.
Tesla's so-called Autopilot and related features fall into this category.
These driver assistance features don't make your car autonomous. You have to keep paying attention to the road, and you remain responsible for overriding them whenever needed.
You can't do other things; putting on makeup is not a safe activity for a driver with any of these features.
But Levels 3 and higher are different.
The new "traffic chauffeur" feature, called by different names by different automakers, is SAE Level 3.
A Level 3 feature takes over the driving from you as a temporary partner. While it is active, you can stop paying attention to the road, provided you stand ready to take control back.
Your partner must be able to communicate with you. You cannot leave the driver's seat, and you need to be positioned ready to take over driving at very short notice.
Any SAE Level 3 feature is designed only for a certain set of operational conditions. For example, the Mercedes-Benz option, called Drive Pilot, works only under these conditions:
On certain designated stretches of highways.
At speeds up to 60 kmph (37 mph).
In certain kinds of weather--- no heavy rain or snow.
If your car finds itself outside this comfort zone, it will not make the traffic chauffeur feature available for you to turn on. But if these conditions are satisfied, you can turn it on and let it drive.
Under control of the chauffeur, the car will stop and go as needed on its own. Using its sensors, it will stay within its lane, keep a safe distance, avoid road debris, and negotiate merges with other vehicles.
At the same time, it will watch for certain kinds of events:
Any unplanned construction activity.
Emergency vehicles approaching.
The end of the designated stretch of highway.
Traffic that has speeded up beyond 37 mph.
If it notices any of these, the chauffeur will beep or blink at you to attract your attention, asking you to take over driving. When you move the steering wheel or press a pedal, you will have taken over.
You get a few seconds to respond to the chauffeur's calls. If you fail to take over within this period for any reason, then the car will safely pull over and turn on the hazard lights. If you are not responding, then it will request roadside assistance and unlock the doors so that rescuers can extricate you if needed.
For sure, this is a valuable feature. I like that it understands its own limitations and can proactively ask you for help. Given today's technology, I believe it will work reliably as advertised.
While certainly well short of self-driving, this chauffeur could well prove to be the most important milestone for cars in decades.
As for whether it becomes popular, its cost and exact limitations will determine that.