Formula AI: Who’s ahead in the race for autonomous production vehicles?

It’s safe to say that in 2018, every major automotive manufacturer is hard at work on its autonomous vehicle strategy. But what exactly do we mean when we say ‘autonomous vehicle’ (aka ‘self-driving car’)? Will we soon be sipping coffee from the back seat, or are we destined to always sit in the driver’s seat, one hand hovering nervously over the steering wheel?

In 2014, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) published a classification system for autonomous vehicles based on six different levels. These range from zero, being almost completely human-controlled with minor interventions up to five, capable of fully automated driving, with no human interaction, under all conditions.

Most cars on the road today are level 0; aside from standard safety features such as automated braking (ABS) or traction control, they are incapable of autonomy. Increasingly, new cars are packing level one autonomous features, largely only useful when cruising on highways. Vehicles are capable of adjusting speed to suit traffic ahead (adaptive cruise control) or ensuring the vehicle stays perfectly in-lane. Being capable of both earns them a bump up to level two autonomy — but in any case, the driver must be alert and ready to take manual control at any time.

A report by Canalys, in association with Arm, suggests that the first vehicles to reach level four in a production capacity will be ‘robotaxis’; ride-hailing app Lyft has predicted that in five years robotaxis will provide most Lyft rides.

Yet while increased autonomy will inevitably lead to an evolution in the way we travel, commute and perceive ‘the car’ as a status symbol overall, the race is now very much on to bring level three, four and five functionality to production vehicles people can buy for themselves. Where, then, along the autonomy scale are the world’s largest manufacturers today?

SAE Level 1

Currently models by Ford, Honda and Toyota feature level one autonomy, though don’t expect your driving experience to be anything less than fully hands-on. All three manufacturers have aggressive timelines in place, though; Ford is targeting 2021 for a fleet-ready level five vehicle. Honda is looking to launch a level three solution for multi-lane highway driving by 2020, and while it hasn’t yet set its sights on level five, it expects to offer a level four vehicle by 2025. And the Toyota Research Institute is currently developing an autonomous car capable of highway driving, powered by Arm technology.

SAE Level 2

BMW, Tesla, General Motors, Mercedes, Volvo and Nissan all offer production vehicles currently featuring level two autonomy. BMW’s ConnectedDrive assistance system provides active cruise control, while any BMW driver tempted to play to the (unfair) stereotype of lethargic indicator use will find themselves quickly ticked off by the car’s lane departure sensors. The company recently announced that you’ll be able to buy a level 3 BMW, capable of fully autonomous driving in certain limited situations, sometime in 2021. Tesla’s current line-up offers level two autonomy while recording billions of miles worth of real-world Level-5-worthy driving data in ‘shadow mode’ for analysis and simulation. Meanwhile, Nissan, Mercedes and GM are all looking to build robotaxis as their first forays into higher levels of autonomy.

SAE Level 3

A number of current generation cars by The VW Group feature level two automation such as lane assist and cruise control, but it’s the group’s premium Audi brand that is serving as a hotbed of technological innovation. The stunning 2019 Audi A8 is the first production car to offer level three autonomy. Its brain is the zFAS (zentrales Fahrerassistenzsteuergerät, aka Central driver assistance controller), consisting of four processors including an NVIDIA Tegra K1 Quad-Core Arm Cortex-A15 CPU and Altera Cyclone® V dual-core Arm Cortex-A9 MPCore SoC. It’s capable of identifying everything from road signs to pedestrians in real-time via 360 degree image capture and processing.

SAE Level 4+

While we’re yet to see any production vehicle with true SAE level 4 or above capability, prototypes certainly exist, with everyone from university start-ups to some of the world’s largest tech companies now heavily involved in their research and development. In 2014, Google revealed a new, fully autonomous prototype vehicle lacking any manual controls — steering wheel, accelerator or brake — whatsoever.

If you’re attending Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week, visit the Arm stand in Hall 6, stand 6E30 to discover more about how Arm is enabling autonomous driving experiences.