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How do autonomous vehicles work?

Autonomous cars have been the stuff of science fiction for decades, but they’re now fast-becoming a reality. Although fully autonomous cars aren’t available to buy just yet, manufacturers like Tesla continue to push the envelope with self-driving systems that can cope with a variety of situations.

Wondering how these systems work? That’s exactly what we’re going to investigate in this article.

Hardware and software
Autonomous vehicles rely on advanced hardware and software systems, each of which have to talk to one another multiple times a second to keep the car on the road. It all starts on the outside of the car, which is littered with hidden laser and radar sensors and cameras.

Neatly installed into the vehicle’s bodywork, these sensors don’t affect the looks of the car - they still look just like any other roadgoing vehicle. They may be virtually imperceptible, but these sensors and cameras work overtime to build an accurate 3D picture of the car’s surroundings. And they don’t just map out what’s in front, but what’s beside and to the rear of the vehicle.

This mass of information is then relayed to the car’s software system, which interprets the data and provides accelerator, brake and steering inputs as required.

Levels of autonomy
Not every self-driving car is fully autonomous - in fact, none of the current commercially available models are. The level of autonomy each model offers is categorised into one of the following levels, with most currently sitting no higher than level 2 or 3.

  • Level 0: A completely human-controlled vehicle.
  • Level 1: Autonomy is limited to certain systems, like cruise control or emergency braking.
  • Level 2: The car can accelerate, brake or steer itself, but humans will still need to intervene when prompted.
  • Level 3: The car can detect hazards and mostly drive itself, but not in every situation.
  • Level 4: Under most circumstances, the vehicle can drive itself. Humans will still have the option of stepping in if required.
  • Level 5: Fully autonomous, with no human input required.

How far off are fully autonomous vehicles?
Although current hardware is capable of facilitating full automation, software is the bottleneck; manufacturers and tech companies have been working on it for many years, but it’s still some way off being ready for the mass market. Tesla’s Elon Musk has said he expects the company to be offering Level 4 autonomous vehicles by the end of the year, although he has been inaccurate with his claims in the past. Time will tell whether he’s right this time around.

How will garages adapt?
As more and more semi-autonomous (or self-driving) vehicles hit the roads of Britain, garages and body shops will have to adapt to the new technology. We’re making that possible at Hofmann Megaplan with our ADAS diagnostics systems, which allow the aftermarket sector to diagnose and rectify issues with radar and camera systems. Find out more about them today or contact us to learn more.

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