So where is your self-driving car? Those of us waiting in hope must reckon with the daily news cycle, as tech companies big and small contribute to a hype that obscures the real progress. Elon Musk has predicted several times that we would achieve ‘Level 5 autonomy’ inside a year, but these predictions have failed to materialise.
Meanwhile, there are huge teams of engineers deep in the technical soup, working out the best sensors to use, how much data to collect, how best to communicate with other vehicles, and the dozens of interconnected technical challenges. The goal is full autonomy, a vehicle that drives itself, anywhere and everywhere, with optional human being. And where are we today? Well, you could have your self-driving car tomorrow – just don’t expect to get more than a mile or two without “disengagement”.
It’s clear that we’re nowhere near our expectation of perfection when it comes to autonomous vehicles. We’d like all the skill and nuance of a human driver, without any of the flaws. Autonomous vehicles should be (very nearly) perfectly safe, all the time, irrespective of the world around them. But even with the rate of technological progress, will that ever be possible?
Before we explore this question, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the industry’s agreed levels of autonomy:
Level 1 is ‘driver assistance’. This is where a single aspect is automated, but the driver is very much still in charge.
Level 2 is ‘partial automation’. This is where chips control two or more elements. In broad terms, this is where we are today, where vehicles are intelligent enough to weave speed and steering systems together using multiple data sources.
Level 3 is ‘conditional automation’. This is where a vehicle can manage safety-critical functions. Although all aspects of driving can be done automatically, the driver must be on

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