The question of what is a self driving car comes with a simple answer and one with complexity, dependent on how broad your range of definition is.
A self driving car uses a computer to perform part or all of the functions otherwise undertaken by a person. The capability of a self driving car is divided into six levels, four of which may be an answer to what is a self driving car:
Level 0: This is where the majority of cars on the road are at right now, where all elements of actual driving are controlled by the human behind the wheel. This includes levels of acceleration, steering and the route that the car is taking. Extra elements that may be controlled by computer such as the winding down of windows or an automatic gear box are not included in self-driving capabilities.
Level 1: A specific single function is performed by the car. This can be something quite central to driving such as steering, but does not act in conjunction with any other features and the driver must be ready to take control at any time.
Level 2: This can incorporate elements of self-driving and can be found in a range of cars on the road today, utilizing more than more than one element of vehicle control for a level of self driving experience. The most obvious of these is cruise control, where the car can continue at a set speed in a straight line without the driver’s foot on the acceleration. The driver is however able to take over at any point.
What is a self driving car: Three levels of autonomy
Level 3: A vehicle with full self-driving capabilities, but with the important addition that control of the car can be reverted to a human driver behind the wheel of the vehicle at any time.
Level 4: The car is able to be completely self-driving for a journey, in which it may not require a human behind the wheel. However, this only covers certain scenarios and jurisdictions, so would not be available for all journeys (and thus the car would likely be equipped to revert to levels 2 and 3).
Level 5: Currently still an aspiration for self-driving car manufacturers is having this level of capability out on the road. At this point of full automation, everything is controlled by computer. If there were a human in the car, they would not be able to drive the vehicle, which is able to steer, accelerate, monitor speed and navigate all by itself.
At a recent Frost and Sullivan (F&S) intelligent mobility conference, vice-president of consulting and mobility at F&S Benny Daniel stated his belief that one in four (18 million) cars sold globally will be automated at Levels 3,4, or 5 by the year 2030. Dependent on your attitude towards self driving cars, this prediction may be cause for optimism or alarm.
A key player in the self driving car market is Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet.