As the automotive industry enters a new decade full of rapid advancements, it is only a matter of time before self-driving vehicles fill public streets in the U.S., the town of Concord, and Concord Academy itself. Large companies are investing millions of dollars in autonomous vehicles to make these cars safer, not only for CA’s faculty and staff but also for individuals around the country.

Features in self-driving car technology are advancing every day. In 2016, only a handful of companies produced self-driving technology that enabled cars to undergo forward collision-braking and lane-centered steering. However, in 2021, many more companies make technology that allows vehicles to perform lane-centered steering and other basic autonomous driving processes. 

A self-driving car must be capable of navigating to a destination, avoiding obstacles, and parking without any human intervention. To accomplish this, the vehicle must have an artificial intelligence system that senses its surroundings. The AI works directly with the car's video cameras, radar sensors, and lidar (many driverless cars require all three). The AI uses these components to fully map out the car's surroundings and watch out for unexpected obstacles. Video cameras, in particular detect traffic lights, read road signs, track other vehicles, and look for pedestrians, whereas radar sensors monitor the position of nearby vehicles. Lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors bounce pulses of light off the car's surroundings to measure distances and detect road edges. 

There are many different levels of self-driving cars. Levels one to five refer to the amount of human involvement needed in the driving process. 

  • Level 1 ("hands-on" ): The driver and the automated system share control of the vehicle. 
  • Level 2 ("hands-off" ): The automated system takes complete control of the vehicle when accelerating, braking, and steering. The driver must monitor the driving and be prepared to intervene immediately if the automated system fails to respond properly.
  • Level 3 ("eyes off" ): The driver can safely turn their attention away from the driving tasks. The vehicle will handle situations that call for an immediate response, such as emergency braking. The driver must still be prepared to intervene within some limited time specified by the manufacturer.
  • Level 4 ("mind off" ): Same as level 3, but no driver attention is required. However, self-driving is supported only in limited spatial areas. The vehicle must safely abort the trip, slow down, and park itself outside of the specified regions or circumstances if the driver does not retake control. 
  • Level 5 ("steering wheel optional" ): No human intervention is required at all. 

Some CA parents, faculty, and staff own Teslas and other vehicles with very low-level self-driving capabilities. Higher levels such as levels 4 and 5 are not yet for sale. The technology required to allow no human intervention still has certain drawbacks. Some issues include the car's sensing and navigation systems in poor weather (such as snow) and object detection, especially when it comes to certain animals. Moreover, manufacturers often encounter difficulties with radio signals, which autonomous component cars require. In a place where radio connection is not strong or is not present, these cars may not drive safely. This will be a problem for CA students and faculty as we are part of a school that is located in an area densely populated by trees. Lastly, artificial intelligence development is still a work in progress for self-driving cars. These cars need to have programmed driving algorithms that can understand pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals' intentions and impulses. 

Although this process is still in its infancy, self-driving technology is continually being developed, ensuring that this futuristic enterprise will one day be a reality. This will make our life even more accessible. These cars will add extra hours to CA students, faculty, staff, and parents' days through maximizing commute productivity. Long-distance commuters can get work done from the driver's seat or take a restful nap while navigating through traffic. For students in specific, this technology may lift requirements on occupants' driving ability and age, possibly making younger students more independent. Most importantly, when this technology is fully developed, it will hopefully prevent accidents, providing CA drivers and pedestrians a greater sense of safety.