Photo by Casey Horner

Adventures in Self Driving Cars, Part II

Rachel McClung


Every time we enter a vehicle, we acknowledge that there are certain risks associated with humans piloting a metallic machine at a high speed. Wouldn’t it be safer to have a robot car to manage the driving process? Recent press has called attention to the fact that autonomous cars are not without impunity. Some studies suggest autonomous cars are slightly safer, but others indicate that the foresighted human qualities aid in the management of complex situations on the road.

Today, the general accepted standard for autonomous vehicles uses a six-point scale. The levels of automation are defined as follows:

  • Level 0: No Automation—a standard vehicle.
  • Level 1: Driver Assistance— car begins to support the driver. Examples here include cruise control / adaptive cruise control.
  • Level 2: partial automation — the car might be able to steer and manage speed, but driver input is required. More complex maneuvers must be handled by a human.
  • Level 3: conditional automation —the car can operate itself when conditions are right.
  • Level 4: high automation—the car can operate independently most of the time, but still requires human oversight. Theorized to be the most risky level of automation due to the relative independence of the vehicle and the limitations of the human attention span.
  • Level 5: fully autonomous — the vehicle requires no human input whatsoever. This is the ultimate vision for self-driving vehicles.

Then, too, we must ask deeper ethical questions: should a machine be trusted with life-and-death decisions? Should an autonomous car sacrifice the life of one passenger to preserve the lives of many in an adjacent vehicle? Can we trust a machine to manage risky situations—effectively trusting our lives to its program?

We are willing to accept human error, but we hold machines to a higher standard. Yet machine algorithms are fallible — inheriting error from the humans that created them.

Those big questions have yet to be answered. I have yet to find myself in a level 3 or greater autonomous vehicle, but as the driver of a Honda Civic that employs level 2 features, I have my own observations.

Adaptive cruise control (ACC) is available at speeds over 25mph. ACC will maintain a set following distance and accelerate to top speed set by the driver when conditions are right. The driver authorizes the car to travel up to a set speed and to maintain one of four proportionate, preset distances between the car in front of it. This addresses the old. is helpful in reducing fatigue on long highway drives.

Preset distances sound equitable, but in practice the mix of automatically managed distances and impatient human drivers can lead to frustration on the road. We all know that it is best to maintain a safe distance between our car and the next one, but how often do safety principles get tossed aside in the rush to pass the next car? Adaptive cruise control offers a less aggressive driving approach and is ideal for situations where driving speed needs to be maintained.

As a human driver, I am aware of situations down the road where braking will be required. My car will not detect those situations until they fall within the set range. In cases of traffic jams, I am confident that my car can make adjustments to brake and maintain a proper following distance, but I do have to think about the car behind me. Its human driver might need extra time to react.

At speeds over 45mph, lane control is added. When lines are well-painted and visibility is good, the car can steer itself between the lines. This also helps to reduce fatigue—an experienced driver does not notice the many micro movements they make to optimize the car’s position between the lines, but the reduced need for these movements is noticeable.

Still, the Civic relies on a basic camera system to perform these driving maneuvers. It’s not a perfect system, and the acceleration can be jerky at times. The car cannot recognize more sophisticated driving patterns — a car slowing down to exit and turning into an off-ramp still registers as an object in front of me. All-direction four leg interchanges featuring circular double-turn lanes trigger a severe “BRAKE” message as traffic turning the opposite direction registers as dangerous. Fortunately, the human drive can account for these aberrations and avoid undue panic.

While self-driving technology is still in its infancy, it is a compelling look at what the future might be like. No doubt level 2 cars will one day seem as primitive as one of those early cell phones with the brick form factor. Yet we can experience the promise they hold, one mile at a time.



Rachel McClung

Product designer steeped in the Swiss design tradition. Thinker, writer, speaker.