Pump the brakes on buying a self-driving car any time soon

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If you followed CES 2018 in Las Vegas earlier this month or the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, you’re probably already hyped to head to your local dealership and put a down payment on a self-driving car.

After all, both shows had plenty of news surrounding autonomous vehicles. And with automakers like Tesla offering limited self-driving capabilities in their autos, it feels like a car that can drive you across town without having you touch the wheel is right around the corner.

And in a sense, that’s true. But if you’re hoping to visit a dealership and pick up a robo-car of your own that can crisscross the country while you nap, watch movies or have a few beers, you’ll have to wait a lot longer.

The car as computer

The first thing you need to realize when talking about self-driving cars is that they’re not all built the same. That’s because the auto industry categorizes the vehicles by six levels of autonomy established by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Levels 0 to 2 refer to cars that are completely human controlled or include one or more driver-assistance systems, but still must be controlled by a human driver.

Level 3 is where “automated” systems come into play and allows the car to drive itself with the expectation that a human will take over when necessary. Level 4 sees the self-driving system completely control a vehicle without human interference, but only within a set area or outside of weather events such as heavy rain or snow.

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The final stage of automation, which is what your average person likely thinks of when they hear the term “self-driving cars,” is Level 5, when a vehicle drives on its own regardless of its location, the time of day or the kind of weather it’s traveling in.

So, when an automaker tells the world that it will have self-driving cars by 2020, it likely means Level 3 or Level 4 cars will be available as commercial vehicles, in specific cities or regions without consumer sales by that time.

That might not be what you have in mind when you hear a car company executive talking about getting self-driving cars on the road in the next decade, but it’s also not an exaggeration on the company’s part. What’s more of a problem is how such vehicles are described to the public. But that’s neither here, nor there.

Where are we now?

OK, so there are a number of definitions for self-driving cars. So where is the industry now? That depends on which automaker you talk to. Tesla (TSLA), for example, uses what Gartner’s Mike Ramsey refers to as Level 2 Plus.

Sure, a Tesla Model S with Autopilot activated can drive on certain roads, accelerating and decelerating and moving the steering wheel on its own, but the vehicle needs you to be able to monitor the driving environment by ensuring you keep your hands on the wheel, and the vehicle can’t perform certain maneuvers like making turns, or U-turns. It’s basically a high-end version of cruise control.

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