On self-driving cars

We’re a decade from self-driving cars. When I write self-driving I mean a car that drives you around while you sleep, which is level-4 and level-5. Since I think we have 10 years until that, in the meantime let’s talk about level 1, 2 and 3 in a granular way.

There are 5-levels on the way to self-driving nirvana.

  • 1995-2015 was about level-1
  • 2015-2025 will be about commercializing level 2 –– Tesla and Cadillac are already at level-2 using RADAR.
  • 2022-beyond will be about Level-3 using LIDAR, and it will be slow hill climbing from there to level-4 and level-5. Get comfy for the road-trip to self-driving.

Level 1 (1995-2015) = one of the following but not both: traffic aware cruise control–TAAC (e.g. cars with) or lane keeping (e.g. cars with)
Level 2 (2015-2025) = both TAAC and lane keeping with nags, we’ll be stuck here until 2025 because of the $50,000 incremental cost per car for LIDAR. Tesla and Cadillac have this. Eventually every car will.
Level 3 (2025-beyond) = both TAAC and lane keeping without nags. Tesla and Cadillac can do this now, but not without killing people. Thus they’ll probably not be granted this without LIDAR. Trouble is, LIDAR makes cars $50,000 more expensive. Many people disagree that LIDAR is a requirement for level 3, including Elon Musk and my brother in-law – both of whom think LIDAR is a crutch until machine learning algorithms can extract safe self-driving cues from RADAR hardware. In either case, it seems that the first cars with level-3 will be Lyft-like services like Cruise and Waymo, not cars you can purchase like Tesla.
Level 4 = both TAAC and lane keeping without nags and the driver can sleep, but only on certain roads (e.g. either divided-controlled-access-highways or urban roads, not both)
Level 5 = same as above, but for all roads

Below is a helpful diagram from the Society of Automotive Engineers.

All of level 1/2 cars you can buy today are RADAR-based systems for “divided controlled access highways”. RADAR is cheap but doesn’t do well when there are glare or shadows. These systems don’t work on county, suburban, or urban roads. This makes these level 1/2 cars good for some of your commute but not all of it.

Several startups are working on LIDAR-based level-4 self-driving systems for urban roads. None of these companies plan to sell their cars because they’re way too expensive. Instead they’ll launch Lyft-like services. Why are their cars too expensive to sell? Each of the 4+ LIDAR units on each car costs $10,000 ($40,000 in LIDAR per car). And LIDARs are easily stolen. This is why Cruise and Waymo are buying LIDAR startups in the hopes of reducing the cost for LIDAR. Waymo took it one step further and is selling LIDAR units to gain benefits of scale from it’s own self-driving competitors.

Ok, so what are the two best self-driving systems out there? Tesla Auto Pilot and Cadillac Super Cruise. The rest are all concepts. If you don’t believe me do a search for them on youtube in the last months. You will not find anyone using them in the wild, because they do not exist except on closed tracks, in private beta.


Below is the best video showing how about Tesla Autopilot works. This highway system will change lanes for you, come to a complete stop and restart in gridlock, and make exits. Nags ask you to move the wheel to prove you’re aware.


Below is the best video showing how about Cadillac Super Cruise works. This highway system will change lanes for you, come to a complete stop In gridlock and restart, and take exits. A driver facing camera looks at your face so it light-up the steering wheel and vibrate your seat if your eyes wander.

Published by Neal Mueller