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Autonomous Cars: How do Self-Driving Cars Actually Work?

Autonomous Cars: How to Self-Driving Cars Actually Work?


Have you ever dreamed of kicking your feet up while your car drives you to your destination? Science fiction movies like I, Robot, and Minority Report have portrayed this idea for years. Now, self-driving cars are becoming a reality.

No special effects or futuristic gadgets. Just the merging of advanced technology with our everyday vehicles. We’ve all heard of Tesla’s autopilot feature and Google’s Waymo, but how exactly do these self-driving cars work?

 Let’s dive into the inner workings of these fascinating vehicles.

How do Autonomous cars work? 

It’s worth noting that no fully autonomous car is currently on the market. However, many companies are working towards making this a reality in the near future. However, multiple prototypes and semi-autonomous cars are available for purchase, like Tesla’s Model S and Audi’s A8.

So, how do they work? Think of everything a human driver does while operating a car. They’re checking mirrors and blind spots and controlling the speed and steering. Let’s not forget about making split-second decisions in response to any obstacles that may arise. Now imagine all of those tasks being performed by computers and advanced technology.

Autonomous cars rely on various sensors, including radar, lidar (laser radar), and cameras. These sensors gather information about the car’s surroundings, allowing it to navigate its environment. The collected data is processed by a computer system, which then decides how to operate the vehicle.

Artificial intelligence (AI) also plays a crucial role in self-driving cars. AI allows the car to execute complex algorithms in near real-time. It can adjust and improve its performance over time through machine learning. Every autonomous vehicle also has a backup system to take over in the event of technology failure. These backups range from traditional manual driving systems to automatic emergency braking features.

Also Read: AI in Traffic Management

Levels of Automation

As mentioned above, full automation is the pinnacle of self-driving technology. The Society of Automotive Engineers has created a classification system to define the levels of automation. Here’s a breakdown:

No Automation (Level 0):

The lowest level of automation is no automation at all. If you’re old enough to drive, you’re probably already familiar with this level. A human driver operates the car at all times, from start to finish. Only older cars may fall into this category, as most modern vehicles have some level of automation. If the biggest help you’ve got is an emergency brake, you’re probably at level 0.

Driver Assistance (Level 1)

Next up is driver assistance technology, where the car can assist the driver with specific tasks. Think of features like adaptive cruise control. Sure, the car makes some small decisions, but it ultimately still depends on human authority. You’ll need to steer and brake when necessary, and the car will only handle certain tasks.

Many cars today have some level 1 automation, like automatic emergency braking.

Partial Automation (Level 2)

Partial automation is where things start to get interesting. The car is equipped with an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS,) allowing it to handle multiple tasks simultaneously. However, a human driver must always be in control and monitor the car’s performance.

Tesla’s Autopilot feature falls under level 2 automation—the car can steer, accelerate, and brake on its own while staying within a lane. Cadillac’s Super Cruise also fits in here, as does lane-centering steering.

 Still, a safety driver must be ready to take over at any moment.

Conditional Automation (Level 3)

A subtle but essential difference from level 2 is that level 3 cars have environment detection capabilities. This means the vehicle can monitor its surroundings, including identifying hazards and changing road conditions and make appropriate driving decisions accordingly.

Somebody is still required in the front seat, as they may need human intervention in certain situations. But overall, the car can handle more autonomous driving tasks than at level 2. An example of level 3 automation would be moving past a slow vehicle on the freeway without human input. Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist, found in select Audi models, falls under level 3 automation. 

Higher Automation (Level 4)

We’re now in the realm of genuine self-driving cars. At level 4, the vehicle can handle all driving tasks in a particular environment without human interaction. However, this is limited to specific conditions—a level 4 car may be able to navigate city streets independently, but not rough terrain or inclement weather.

At level 4, a human driver may not even need to be present in the car. Alphabet’s Waymo is testing level 4 self-driving cars in Arizona, where passengers can hail a ride with no one behind the wheel.

Full Automation (Level 5)

Finally, we have the holy grail of autonomous systems: full automation. A level 5 car can handle all driving tasks in any environment or condition. It’s the true equivalent of a human driver who can navigate city streets and off-road adventures. In fact, there’s no need to even have a steering wheel or pedals—a level 5 car can handle everything independently.

This final level is still science fiction at the moment, but many major players in the automotive industry are working towards it. Who knows—maybe one day, we’ll be able to kick back and let our cars handle the driving on cross-country road trips.

Source: YouTube

Also Read: AI and Autonomous Driving

Autonomous vs. Automated vs. Self-Driving.

When it comes to self-driving cars, there can be some confusion around the terms autonomous, automated, and self-driving. While they are related, they do have distinct meanings.

The most basic categorization is that all autonomous vehicles are automated, but not all automated vehicles are autonomous. An automated car has some level of technology assisting in the driving task. Think hands-on lane-centering steering or adaptive cruise control. On the other hand, an autonomous car can handle the driving task without any driver intervention (at least in certain situations).

In fact, we could go as far as saying that a truly autonomous car would have the autonomy to decide its actions rather than following pre-programmed instructions. This is the concept behind true artificial intelligence in self-driving cars.

Self-driving, or driverless vehicles, define cars that can get from point A to point B without any driver monitoring. This falls under the umbrella of “autonomous,” but not all self-driving cars have true autonomy.

What are the benefits of autonomous cars?

There’s a reason private companies are pouring billions into the development of self-driving cars. They have the potential to improve our lives drastically. Here are some of the top benefits that autonomous vehicles could bring:

Reduce traffic congestion

Autonomous cars can potentially increase car-sharing and ride sharing. They can also improve overall traffic flow. In fact, it’s estimated that a fleet of 9,000 autonomous vehicles could replace every taxicab in New York City. The average passenger wait time would only be 36 seconds.

The reasoning behind this is simple. Autonomous cars can communicate with each other and make decisions in real-time rather than relying on human reactions. It could potentially lead to smoother flow and fewer traffic jams. We would end up with roughly 30% fewer vehicles on the road, saving both time and resources.

Cut transportation costs by 40%

Another major benefit of driverless technology is its potential to cut transportation costs. A self-driving vehicle can optimize fuel efficiency and reduce the need for vehicle ownership. They might also reduce wear and tear on roads and infrastructure. It’s estimated that these savings could amount to 40% lower transportation costs overall.

Source: YouTube

Improve walkability and livability

Not only do autonomous cars have the potential to reduce traffic congestion. They could also improve walkability and livability in cities. With more people using ridesharing services, there would be less need for parking spaces. That leaves more room for bike lanes, pedestrian paths, and green spaces.

Autonomous cars could also make deliveries more efficient in big cities where parking is already scarce. This would help reduce traffic and pollution in high-density areas. The towns would become more livable for both residents and visitors. And for those who can’t walk, like the elderly or disabled, autonomous vehicles could increase independence and accessibility.

Free up parking lots for other uses 

In addition to improving walkability in cities, autonomous cars could also free up parking lots for other uses. Think about how vast your local mall’s parking lot is. Add that to the number of superstores, office buildings, and other large parking lots in your city. Imagine that space transformed into parks, schools, or community centers.

Autonomous vehicles could have a significant impact on urban development and the use of public space.

Reduce urban CO2 emissions by 80% worldwide

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of autonomous vehicles is their potential to reduce carbon emissions in cities. It’s a well-known fact that transportation contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. But autonomous cars could greatly improve the sustainability of our transportation methods.

Less traffic congestion and optimized fuel efficiency could result in a projected 80% reduction in CO2 emissions in urban areas worldwide. This would greatly impact fighting climate change and improving air quality.

Of course, it’s important to note that these potential benefits are not guaranteed. The full effects of autonomous cars will only be seen after they become widely adopted. And there are still questions and concerns about safety, regulation, job loss, and privacy.

What are the challenges with autonomous cars?

Speaking of challenges, let’s look at some of the obstacles facing autonomous vehicles.

Lidar and Radar

As mentioned above, autonomous cars use various technologies to navigate their surroundings. Two popular methods are LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and radar. LiDAR uses pulsed laser light to measure distances and create a 3D map of the car’s surroundings. However, it can be expensive and easily thrown off by obstacles like rain or snow.

Radar, on the other hand, uses radio waves to detect objects and determine their speed and location. While it’s cheaper and more reliable in inclement weather, it can have trouble with precision.

The range at which these technologies can detect objects is also a challenge. For autonomous cars to navigate safely, they need to be able to see obstacles far enough in advance.

Weather Conditions

Inclement weather can also affect the operations of autonomous vehicles. Snow, heavy rain, and fog can obstruct the car’s sensors and limit their ability to navigate safely. So far, autonomous vehicles have only been tested in controlled conditions with little inclement weather. Plus, they have mostly been tested on highways and suburban roads.

But what happens when we take them off the beaten path and onto dirt roads or mountainous terrain? These are questions that still need to be answered before autonomous cars can become a widespread reality.

Traffic Light Management

Autonomous cars still have trouble with certain aspects of city driving, like properly detecting and responding to traffic lights and stop signs. They also struggle with identifying pedestrians and predicting their behavior. Tesla’s autopilot has been involved in multiple accidents involving red light violations and pedestrian fatalities.

Until these issues are fully resolved, it’s crucial for autonomous cars to have a human backup driver who can take control in case of an emergency.


One of the most common dreams of autonomous car enthusiasts is a hands-free cross-country or cross-continent road trip. What joy it would bring to kick back and relax while your car drives you across thousands of miles.

But there’s a big roadblock standing in the way: regulations. Each state and country has its own laws and regulations regarding autonomous vehicles. And until there is some sort of uniformity, it will likely remain difficult for autonomous cars to cross state or country borders.

Accident Liability

Regulations also bring up the question of accident liability. While autonomous cars may greatly reduce the risk of human error, they aren’t bulletproof. Who is at fault in a crash involving an autonomous car? Is it the car manufacturer, the driver, or the company providing the technology? These questions still need to be addressed before autonomous vehicles can become mainstream.

Regarding the Tesla accidents mentioned above, it’s clear-cut that they aren’t meant to be fully autonomous. The human driver should still have been paying attention and taking control in those situations. But in a fully autonomous car, who is liable?

Artificial And Emotional Intelligence

Autonomous cars rely on artificial intelligence to make decisions and navigate their surroundings. But they also need a certain level of emotional intelligence to respond appropriately to unexpected situations. How will they handle emergencies without panicking or making rash decisions?

A perfect example of this is the trolley problem. In this ethical dilemma, a runaway trolley is heading toward five people tied to the tracks. The only way to save them is by diverting the trolley onto a different track, where one person is tied up. A human being will philosophically debate the decision, weighing the lives of five against one. But an autonomous car would have to make a split-second decision based on programmed algorithms and values.

It wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice the five if it was programmed to save the one. But is that the ethical choice? These questions need to be considered before fully autonomous cars hit the road.

Read More:

Robot Ethics 2.0: From Autonomous Cars to Artificial intelligence
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Improving Cities Infrastructure

The last, and perhaps the biggest, hurdle to overcome is improving cities’ infrastructure to accommodate autonomous cars. In order for autonomous vehicles to function correctly, they need well-maintained roads with clear lane markings and signage. They also need updated traffic lights and signals to communicate with the car’s technology.

The Internet of Things also plays a role in this, as autonomous cars must communicate with various connected devices such as traffic lights and streetlights. Cities will have to invest in modernizing their infrastructure for autonomous vehicles to thrive.

Finally, electric vehicles will need access to charging stations in order to function effectively. Cities will have to plan for an increase in the need for charging infrastructure.

Also Read: What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?


Autonomous cars are undeniably the wave of the future. But before they can become mainstream, there are still several obstacles to overcome. That doesn’t change the fact that they are some of the most cutting-edge technology out there, and their potential to revolutionize transportation is exciting. It will be interesting to see how these challenges are addressed in the coming years.

Are you ready for the autonomous car era?