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How Does Autonomous Driving Work?

by Ruben Trevor

Many people are still getting used to the idea of self-driving cars, but there are some vehicles on the road that feature some form of automation.

But how does this actually work? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is An Autonomous Car?

An autonomous car is a revolutionary invention that can do anything that a human driver can. These cars are able to navigate themselves and drive on highways without the need for human intervention.

The invention aims to reduce accidents due to human errors.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines 6 automation levels according to how much automation there is – the higher the level, the more independent it is, thus requiring less to no human input.

Below are the details of the levels as outlined by the SAE.

Level 0: No Automation

The car has no autonomy, and it relies on an actual human driver to function.

Level 1: Driver Assistance

The car has several autonomous features that can help improve safety for drivers. The most popular examples include warning systems such as back-up detection, which will notify you when anything is blocking your path ahead.

Lane departure warnings and blind-spot detection are common features in Level 1 vehicles.

Level 2: Partial Automation

In level 2, the vehicle system can conduct some driving tasks such as steering and accelerating in certain conditions. However, the driver must still monitor the driving environment and perform the other driving tasks beyond the condition the car can understand.

The Peugeot 5008 Allure is a great example of a partially automated vehicle. It has the Hill Assist technology that takes over the brake and accelerator controls when descending a slope.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

In this level, the automated system can control the vehicle by itself while monitoring the driving environment in certain conditions. However, a human driver is still required to take control when necessary.

This system exists in some Tesla and Mercedes units.

Level 4: High Automation

With a level 4 automated system, the vehicle can independently drive and observe the environment at the same time in certain conditions. It doesn’t require a driver to take back control or monitor the surroundings.

Level 5: Full Automation

Level 5 automatic will enable vehicles to communicate with other cars, traffic lights, and road signs. It can operate in full automation under all conditions.

What’s The Difference Between Autonomous vs Automated vs Self-Driving Cars?

It might sound confusing, but these terms can be used interchangeably according to the SAE.

However, considering all technicalities, cars with autonomous features may be often be called autonomous, but they are actually considered automated. Using the term autonomous might indicate that the car makes its own decisions – which is not the case.

Instead, they are automated because humans tell them what to do and where to go, and then the car drives itself.

On the other hand, self-driving vehicles fall under the SAE automation level 3. This means that they can self-drive in some (or all) conditions, but they require a human to take over the control when necessary.

How Do Autonomous Cars Work?

Autonomous cars use radar and laser sensors, GPS, and a digital map to detect other vehicles and obstacles on the road.

For instance, radar sensors can sense nearby vehicles. Together with the light detection and ranging (Lidar) sensors, they can measure distances and identify road markings. Video cameras can watch over pedestrians and detect traffic lights, while ultrasonic sensors can identify curbs when parking.

These systems rely on machine learning to consolidate the information from the sensors and use them to make decisions on the road.

Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles

Improved Road Safety

One of the most significant benefits of autonomous driving is that it can potentially decrease the number of fatalities on the road. The advanced software is likely to make fewer errors than human drivers, making vehicle crashes less likely to happen.

Better Traffic Flow

Autonomous driving may improve traffic flow by eliminating road blockage caused by human behaviours. Additionally, fewer car crashes can also reduce unnecessary congestion on the road.

Convenient Transportation For Everyone

With automation, people who can’t drive can have access to alternative means of transportation. This applies to the elderly or people with specific disabilities.

Challenges in Autonomous Driving

Fully automated vehicles are the future of transportation. While several car manufacturers, such as Mercedes and Volvo, are already testing the technology, they’re still publicly unavailable.

Besides, there are still a lot of challenges that need to be addressed before the public can experience level 5 vehicles.

Here are some of them.


It’s no surprise that manufacturing a fully automated vehicle with all its advanced technology is very pricey. These cars for sure won’t be budget-friendly, and not everyone may be able to afford them.


Because fully automated cars no longer require human intervention, who is considered liable if an accident ensues? Would the manufacturer (due to system error) or the human passenger (for being unable to take control of the car) be liable?


The sensors and cameras are great technologies for an autonomous car, but how will they deliver during lousy weather or bumper-to-bumper traffic? Lane markings may be invisible on a snowy or flooded road – will the sensors be able to observe and respond reliably to these situations?


The laws and regulations governing conventional cars may be ineffective for driverless vehicles. Ideally, lawmakers must create new regulatory laws accommodating self-driving cars. Doing so will require time, and the regulations might even have to vary from one location to the next. This alone is a huge challenge that could push autonomous vehicles further in the future.

Emotional Intelligence

Autonomous cars don’t have the same intuition and emotional intelligence that humans have. They only rely on precise signals from the environment. But what happens if certain conditions alter these signals?

For instance, a human can discern that even if the green light is on, he must not move the car if a pedestrian suddenly crosses the road. It’s still unclear if autonomous vehicles will be able to learn to respond to more complex situations.


Although it’s still a long way to go before the public can use fully autonomous cars, it’s clear that it has the potential to revolutionise transportation.

And while many potential benefits will come with this advancement, manufacturers will need to overcome and polish many challenges before the public can safely use them on the road.

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