Autonomous versus semi-autonomous cars: What’s the difference?

By Anna Kantilaftas, 20 Sep 2016 Car Advice

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Robot driving a car

So, you want to buy an autonomous car? But beware, the marketing buzz words don’t live up to their hype.

Self-driving cars are the newest automotive technology to take the car-world by storm. Tesla, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are just a few of the car-brands throwing around autonomous buzz words. But, the word ‘autonomous’ isn’t exactly as it seems.

Autonomous, autopilot and self-driving are words used by carmakers for a vehicle that uses sensors and cameras to process data. That does not, however, mean the car can drive itself. At least, not safely.

Autonomous technology means the car can do some things on its own with minimal input from the driver. Auto-parking is an autonomous technology – but note that even this feature requires some human input to get the car in place.

Most cars these days use autonomous technology to create a semi-autonomous car. As Volvo explains, “Volvo Cars uses some of this technology to create semi-autonomous cars that make your journey easier and safer, while leaving you fully in control.”

According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are different levels of autonomous vehicle technology from Level 0 to Level 4. While the Society of Automotive Engineers also have a ranking system from Level 0-5. Both these systems are based on either the vehicle’s level of autonomy or the amount of input required of the operator.

So, what is the difference between semi- and fully- auto piloted cars?

Semi-autonomous means the responsibility for driving falls to the driver and the technology is used in the car as a driver-air and safety feature. While an autonomous car is able to fully drive itself like Herbie the Love Bug or the Batmobile and operators (rather than drivers) are able to give full control and responsibility to the machine.

At this point in time, infrastructure and legal framework do not exist to support fully autonomous cars. While semi-autonomous cars, including Tesla’s, are already taking to the street, but require, by law, drivers to pay attention and control the vehicle.

So, if you’re heading to the nearest Tesla dealership in the hope to buy a car that can get you from home to the office while you catch up on some emails, you might want to consider hiring a chauffeur instead.