Autonomous Vehicles: The Progress and Challenges in 2024

Photo - Autonomous Vehicles: The Progress and Challenges in 2024
Modern cars are packed with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that automate functions like parking, steering, and braking. With time, more and more features are getting automated. While people currently remain in charge of controlling cars, technology is expected to reach a level of fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

What Is an Autonomous Vehicle (AV)? Is It the Same as a Self-Driving Car?

Different terms are used to refer to cars capable of operating without human intervention. Automated, robotic, self-driving, driverless, and autonomous are among the most common ones. Although they are often used interchangeably, there are differences based on how much the car depends on the driver’s instructions. A fully autonomous vehicle, or self-driving vehicle is a concept of the future. This type of vehicle is supposed to operate on its own and make decisions without the driver’s help. Relying on Artificial Intelligence and trained data, they will analyze the received information from cameras and sensors, and predict and prevent accidents without instructions. 

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) identify 6 levels of automated driving. The classification starts from Level 0 to Level 5. Level 0 means no automation and no driver assistance systems, while level 5 defines complete autonomy. Level 5 autonomous vehicles drive themselves in all conditions without human intervention. 

Now, automakers have achieved Level 4, or highly automated vehicles. The cars operate without drivers in certain conditions only requiring the attention of drivers or remote assistants in unusual conditions. For instance, if there’s a warning alarm in construction zones or any other unexpected situations. 

Among the first examples of Level 4 autonomous cars are the driverless taxis in the US. In 2020, Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google's parent company Alphabet, opened its Level 4 driverless robotaxi service, called Waymo One, in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Later, in 2022, General Motors’ subsidiary Cruise, introduced its robotaxis in San Francisco. Initially, the taxis included safety drivers but they have since transitioned to fully driverless operations. They rely on advanced computing systems, pre-mapped data, and sensors to provide rides. 

A different type of self-driving technology was introduced by the UK startup Wayve, founded in 2017. Wayve develops AI technology—the Wayve AI driver—which, according to the official company website, can be integrated into any vehicle. The software collects data and learns to drive through machine learning. Wayve’s robotic brain then applies this knowledge in various locations without relying on specific street maps. In a YouTube video, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is seen riding in a driverless car in downtown London with Wayve CEO Alex Kendall and safety operator Theepa. The algorithm manages all functions, including steering, braking, and signaling, making decisions based on data received through its sensors. 

Related fact: Microsoft is a large investor in Wayve, which raised over $1 billion in funding in May.  

Risks of Autonomous Vehicles

Highly automated cars present technical, social, and regulatory challenges which have become apparent once they hit the roads. On the technical side, autonomous cars face problems such as inaccurate mapping, failure of real-time updates, and slow reaction responses to unexpected obstacles or events. While human drivers can communicate with each other when an uncertain situation comes up - for example when one needs to give way to another on a narrow road - it’s uncertain how the self-driving cars will behave. If they bump into each other, it’s uncertain which one will be “responsible.” Errors in autonomous vehicles, more precisely in robotaxis, have already led to traffic violations and incidents. 

In October 2023, a Cruise ran over a pedestrian woman who was hit by a human-driven car first. The woman survived but had severe injuries. According to a report by CNN, the driver of the car who hit the pedestrian fled the scene after the incident. San Francisco Fire Department spokesperson Justin Schorr told the media that data about the accident was collected through Cruise’s cameras as there was no driver or passenger to tell what happened. The video showed that the light turned green when Cruise and the other car approached a crosswalk. At that point, the pedestrian was walking across the crosswalk. She couldn’t pass the first car which hit her. The woman landed in front of the robotaxi, which braked, dragging her with it for 20 feet. Then, the robotaxi stopped on top of the pedestrian. 

After the case, California regulators suspended Cruise’s license because of the risks driverless cars present to the public. In May 2024, Cruise reached an $8M settlement with the victim. Since the crash, the company has been working on reinstating its license in California.

Waymo hasn’t been able to bypass incidents either. It is now under investigation by federal regulators. There are more than two dozen reports of Waymo cars being involved in collisions or potentially violating traffic laws. In May, a Waymo car hit a telephone pole while picking up a passenger in Phoenix, Arizona. Luckily, no one was harmed; only the car was severely damaged. Waymo recalled its 672 cars for a software update. Last year, in San Francisco, Waymo killed a small dog in an accident. 

The company’s spokesperson said that the dog ran out from behind the parked car, and the car couldn’t stop in time. 

Since 2022, the crashes and risks of autonomous cars have caused public protests in San Francisco. A group of activists called the Safe Street Rebels have organized campaigns where they placed traffic cones on cars to put them into panic mode.

Increased safety measures are necessary to protect robotaxis as well. In February 2024 a Waymo became a target of vandalism. A group in San Francisco’s Chinatown vandalized the car, setting it on fire. The car was not carrying passengers, and no one was injured. 

Recent Developments in the AV Sector

Today’s semi-autonomous, or Level 4 autonomous vehicles face complex challenges. Based on the current picture, the future of the industry is largely uncertain, despite the ongoing progress and improvements.

Recently, Elon Musk announced that Tesla is going to launch its robotaxi on August 8, 2024. Back in October 2015, the company launched its Autopilot feature, which monitors traffic and assists drivers in steering, acceleration, braking and lane changing. Autopilot features Traffic-Aware Cruise Control for speed matching and Autosteer for lane-keeping assistance within marked lanes. 

In 2016, Tesla introduced Autopilot’s more advanced version, called Full Self Driving (FSD). The capability aims to achieve full autonomy allowing vehicles to operate without human intervention. Despite its name, currently the Tesla Full Self Driving capability still requires drivers’ full attention. Its functionality includes lane changes and exits, automated indicating, parking and Autosteering on city streets. Tesla clarifies: 
The currently enabled Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.
Based on recent updates, Tesla is testing the FSD functions in robotaxis for release in China. Meanwhile, other automakers and tech companies, including Audi, General Motors, Ford and AutoX are developing their self-driving technologies. On the other hand, earlier this year, Apple canceled its self-driving electric car project, which started in 2014. 

The Future of Cars: Will AVs Take Away the Joy of Driving

According to a McKinsey survey, the industry is maturing and will expand in the upcoming years. It predicts: 
Robo-taxis are now expected to become commercially available at a large scale by 2030, and fully autonomous trucking is expected to reach viability between 2028 and 2031.
The big promise of autonomous vehicles is to make driving safer and decrease congestion by reducing human error. Also, they will increase environmental sustainability as most AVs are electric. Achieving the goals of self-driving technology will revolutionize the transportation industry. However, there's a long road ahead for autonomous vehicles to become a widespread reality which includes technical, regulatory, and public acceptance hurdles.

Above all, driving for many people is more than just going from point A to point B. It’s an emotional connection to the car and the joy of steering the wheel. Drivers are unlikely to give up their favorite activity easily. On the other hand, being attentive on the road can be tiresome, especially in traffic. Getting a driver's license can be a headache for some people. In the future, autonomous cars may allow people to own and use cars with little to no driving skills required. The perfect solution might be to offer drivers the option to choose the level of autonomy they feel comfortable with.

Web3 writer and crypto HODLer with a keen interest in market trends and recent technologies.