Autonomous vehicles: Predictions vs. truth 

Exactly how advanced is autonomous driving technology? 

Person driving but not touching the steering wheel. Distracted driving, speeding, drunk driving and reckless driving are the top four causes of accidents. If we could eliminate these and other driver-related factors, the number of accidents would significantly drop.

When cars were invented, horses were replaced by engines; saddles were replaced by seats; and reins were replaced by a steering wheel and foot pedals. There were no seat belts, safety bumpers, anti-lock brakes or other safety equipment. Windshields were optional. The Model T had a top speed of 40-45 miles per hour, which — considering the lack of safety equipment — was pretty fast. 


That was more than 100 years ago. Technology has progressed through the years, from seat belts to safety bumpers, to anti-lock brakes, airbags and a host of other safety features. More recent innovations include forward-collision warning and lane departure assist, among others. Even though vehicles today have so many safety features, there are still more than 38,000 vehicle-related fatalities on American roads every year. The number of injuries where medical attention is sought is roughly 4.8 million. 


The cause of most accidents is human error; distracted driving, speeding, drunk driving and reckless driving are the top four causes of accidents. If we could eliminate these and other driver-related factors, the number of accidents would significantly drop. The question is how to improve driving skills or, better yet, take the driver out of the equation. 


Enter autonomous vehicles — vehicles capable of maneuvering through the streets without any input from a human driver. Manufacturers have been working on the concept for several years. In 2017, Volvo declared a goal that no one would be killed or seriously injured in any of its vehicles by 2020. Nissan promised ten new autonomous vehicles in the next four years, and Elon Musk predicted that within one or two years you would be able to summon a Tesla from the other side of the country. Other manufacturers made similar predictions, and many have tested various technologies to make fully autonomous vehicles a reality. But we are not there yet, even though Tesla touts its Full Self-Driving functions. 


Defining autonomous vehicles 


What determines whether a vehicle is considered autonomous? First, a scale of 0 to 5 is used to indicate a vehicle’s capability of being driven with less than full human attention or interaction; with 0 being the driver doing all the driving, and 5 being the vehicle autonomously performing all driving tasks without any human intervention. Between levels 0 and 5 there may be various levels of technology that assist with tasks and warn the driver of certain hazards, but the driver still must be engaged on some level. For example, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, blind-spot warnings and lane-centering all provide the driver with helpful information, but the driver must remain in control. 


Level 0 has no assistive features that would affect the maneuvering of the vehicle. Emergency braking systems don’t technically drive the vehicle so, while they may be present, they are not considered driving technology. 


Level 1 has a single automated feature for driving assistance, like cruise control. Adaptive cruise control allows the vehicle to keep a safe distance from the car in front of it, but the driver controls the steering and braking. 


Level 2 automation is considered partial driving automation, where the vehicle can control steering, acceleration and deceleration. Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac’s Super Cruise are considered level 2 autonomy. 


Level 3 is an advanced level and is capable of detecting environmental situations and making decisions, such as detecting and accelerating past a slow-moving vehicle. However, the driver must be prepared to take over the system at any time. 


Level 4 vehicles have the capability to drive and monitor the environment above the abilities of level 3, and are generally limited to particular areas of operation, such as where the speed limit doesn’t exceed 30 mph. Level 4 technology is good for ridesharing and delivery of goods. 


Level 5 is fully autonomous. The vehicle does not need human intervention and can operate without a steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedals. These vehicles are not limited by distance or area, and can go anywhere other vehicles can. 


Despite Tesla’s publicity about Full Self-Driving capabilities, the vehicles are still considered level 2 autonomous. There are no fully autonomous vehicles available to the public for sale. There are, however, some fully autonomous services being provided in a few test areas. 


Waymo One is a ride-hailing service operating in some areas of Phoenix. Similar to Uber or Lyft, the rider hails a vehicle using the Waymo One app to order a vehicle. The rider can adjust the trip and add up to five different stops along the way. A rider can go to the grocery store and then pick up dry cleaning, for example. The service is fully autonomous, with no safety driver in the front seat. The vehicles are limited to certain areas and are equipped with multiple redundant safety systems in event of an emergency. There are plans to extend the service to San Francisco, but currently, that is still in testing. 


Commercial vehicles are autonomous too 


Autonomous technology doesn’t just apply to private passenger vehicles. With the shortage of truck drivers, having autonomous technology would allow goods to be moved across the country on a 24-hour basis. The autonomous trucks could keep moving without the need to stop for drivers to rest. There are other considerations, of course, such as refueling the vehicles and the loading and unloading of goods. While much of the technology is the same, the size of the vehicle and the logistics of turning and navigating in traffic bring a different element to the task at hand. Maneuvering an 18-wheeler is different than maneuvering a four-door sedan. 


Advances are being made, however, as evidenced last December when a semi-truck completed an 80-mile freight route test in Arizona with no human on board and no intervention using TuSimple technology. A lead vehicle scouted the route for unexpected obstacles about five miles ahead of the autonomous semi, and a trailing vehicle followed about one-half mile behind the truck prepared to intervene if necessary, along with several unmarked police vehicles. TuSimple said the semi-successfully navigated highway lane changes, traffic signals and on- and off-ramps while “naturally interacting with other motorists.” 


Technology will continue to progress, making more and more safety features available in vehicles that will allow drivers to let the car perform some functions. This is problematic, and studies have shown that once people get used to the presence of assistive technology, they rely on it too much and aren’t paying close attention to driving. If they have to suddenly take over for the vehicle they are not prepared. 


Fully autonomous vehicles are still a ways off, and there is a tremendous amount of complicated technology needed before vehicles can fully drive on their own in any location without oversight or input from a human driver. 


Christine G. Barlow, CPCU, ( is the managing editor of FC&S Expert Coverage Interpretation, the authority on insurance coverage interpretation and analysis for the P&C industry. 


By Christine G. Barlow, CPCU | May 30, 2022 at 12:00 AM