The automotive world is gripped with excitement about the concept of car automation. Who isn't? Car companies, enthusiasts, and everyday people alike have started to welcome the idea that Aussie roads will one day be full of self-driving cars.
Despite this seeming openness for autonomous vehicles, there remains a strong need for more education and awareness on the topic. Part of this is because most people still have the misconception that car automation means having an autonomous vehicle that can do everything for humans. Most people might assume that a self-driving car is just one that picks you up, drops you off at your destination, and waits patiently for you outside.
That’s far from the truth. In reality, car automation is not an all-or-nothing situation. Instead, an automated car may have one of six different levels of automation. On top of that, not all levels of automation are street-legal, either!
So, in this article, we’re going to find out what the different levels are. Then, we’ll figure out which levels of autonomy are legal in Australia and which are not.
What are the different levels of self-driving cars?
Car automation levels start at Level 0. At this level, a vehicle would have no automation other than standard features like cruise control, which ‘automates’ the control of your speed over long distances. So, most cars that exist right now, including the one you’re probably driving, are considered to be at this level.
At Level 1 automation, the manufacturer will fit the car with Driver Assistance features. These features are pretty standard today. You'll see them mentioned in the marketing materials for more recent models. Examples of those Driver Assistance features include adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist. These features are there to help the driver operate the vehicle in a much safer way. Even though this is a form of car automation, the driver has to continue controlling the car, nonetheless.
At Level 2, you can consider these vehicles to have 'partial automation'. The driver will have to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times. However, the car can take over the steering, accelerating, and decelerating. At this level, there is a significant amount of automation, but you cannot consider the car to be 'self-driving' just yet. Level 2 automation is handy for people who find themselves in stop-and-go traffic, like in traffic jams. The partial automation will prevent fatigue in the driver by keeping a safe distance and accelerating/decelerating as needed.
Drivers for levels 0, 1, and 2 vehicles are the ones responsible for keeping an eye on the driving environment. No matter what happens, they’ll need to keep their hands on the steering wheel and concentrate on their responsibility.
Starting with Level 3 to Level 5, the automated system of the car will be the one to keep an eye on the road. Level 3, where Conditional Automation is available, the vehicle is capable of some decision-making. For example, a car at Level 3 of automation can overtake another vehicle by itself.
However, this vehicle will still need a human being who is ready to take over driving at any time. If the car’s automated system fails to perform by itself, the human driver needs to take over immediately.
In a media release by James Cook University, the technology currently stands at this level, and it’ll be a long time before anyone can achieve higher levels of automation.
Level 4 is where there’s ‘High Automation’. This indicates a high degree of car automation, but still not a point where the car will be capable of taking care of itself.
Instead, Level 4 means that the vehicle can handle everything from the origin to the destination without human input. All you'd have to do is set the destination and let the car do its job. It can resolve issues whenever something goes wrong, or the system fails somehow.
So, in most cases, you don't have to grab the steering wheel and take over, although it can be done.
Level 5 is probably what most people imagine when they hear the words 'self-driving car'. At this level, a car wouldn't even need a steering wheel or pedals. The vehicle will do absolutely everything, while you and your family can sit inside having a picnic or even sleeping.
Are Automated Cars a Good Idea?
That is an excellent question, and a crucial one, too. There are ongoing debates as to whether or not autonomous cars are a great idea. As you might imagine, self-driving vehicles could be more effective at avoiding collisions and other accidents than most human drivers. Unlike humans with relatively slow reaction times, an automated car could detect danger and adjust much quicker to avoid it. It's for this reason that the liquor industry supports autonomous vehicles. Still, it involves placing a lot of trust in computer systems that have yet to be fully-developed or tested sufficiently.
So, as a matter of personal opinion, some level of automation is great. But perhaps the world and its current technology aren’t ready for a Level 5-type autonomous vehicle just yet.
Are Self-Driving Cars Legal in Australia?
So here we've come to the golden question: are self-driving cars legal in Australia? Well, firstly, let's remember that car automation is broken down into many levels, as seen before. As it is, a lot of newer car models already have up to Level 2 or 'partial automation' thanks to their Driver Assistance features. What this shows us is that car automation is legal in Australia, at least up to Level 2. That's not the case with vehicles at Level 3 and above.
According to a released FAQ by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development, the country's transport ministers have agreed to work on the legalisation of Level 3 automation in Australia by 2020. That’s something we have yet to see.
Echoing the same statement, the National Transport Commission’s website says that fully-driverless vehicles are not yet legal in Australia. They have an Automated Vehicle Program and are in the progress of standardising the rules in Australia for all levels of car automation.
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By Ray Hasbollah