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the road ahead

A technician monitors the self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. on June 14, 2022, in Beijing. Baidu Inc. is China's highest-profile competitor in a multibillion-dollar race with Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo and General Motors Co.'s Cruise to create self-driving cars. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

Can you help settle an argument? There are still no self-driving cars on the market, right? My son says Tesla’s website says its cars are self-driving. I was shocked to see that. If that’s true, can anyone buy a car that can drive itself? Are we ready for that? – Jan, Ottawa

Although it’s been six years since Tesla Inc. started charging thousands of dollars for its Autopilot package, you still can’t buy a Tesla – or any other car – that can drive itself.

But surveys show most people think you can.

“You cannot go to a car dealership anywhere and buy a [driverless] car,” said Tara Andringa, executive director of Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) Canada, an association of not-for-profit groups, automakers and academics that works on educating consumers about current and upcoming self-driving technology. “It’s dangerous that people think they can buy a car where they don’t need to be attentive.”

In a PAVE, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and J.D. Power survey of 4,000 Canadian vehicle owners this spring, 59 per cent said that the driver-assist technology available in new cars right now is fully capable of self-driving.

But it isn’t, Andringa said.

According to SAE International, which sets voluntary engineering standards for the automotive and aerospace industries, there are five levels of automated driving.

For the first three levels, a driver must be behind the wheel and paying attention to the road – no naps, books or movies. Right now, you can buy cars in Canada and the United States with Level 1 and Level 2 self-driving capabilities, but nothing higher.

Level 1 includes partly automated safety features such as adaptive cruise control, which automatically adjusts the set speed to keep your vehicle a safe distance from the car in front of you, or lane-keeping assist, which moves the steering wheel to keep you within the painted lines.

They’re available in most new cars and have been for a few years. But they’re not designed to drive for you, Andringa said.

You can’t take your eyes off the road because the systems may stop working or work only in ideal conditions – for instance, in poor weather lane-keeping assist might lose sight of the lines or adaptive cruise control might not be able to see the car in front of you and keep accelerating toward it. The systems are not regulated or tested by Transport Canada.

Level 2 is reached when two of those safety technologies work together at the same time – for instance, steering to keep you in your lane and braking to keep your car from colliding with the one in front. Telsa’s Autopilot, Nissan’s ProPilot and General Motors’ Super Cruise systems are all categorized as Level 2 systems.

Tesla recommends that you keep your hands on the steering wheel, but GM lets you take your hands off the wheel at certain speeds, as long as your eyes are on the road.

But even though some more-advanced systems can even make lane changes or stop at red lights, they’re still just there to assist, not to drive your car while you text, Andringa said.

Last month, the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released a study showing 53 per cent of Super Cruise users, 42 per cent of Autopilot users and 12 per cent of ProPilot assist users treated their cars as self-driving.

“I think misleading marketing definitely increases the safety risks. When you name a product something like [Autopilot], a reasonable person believes that a car can drive itself,” Andringa said, “even if the website says in small print that an attentive driver must always be behind the wheel.”

So what about Tesla’s $19,500 “Full Self-Driving Capability” feature? So far, it’s being tested by thousands of Tesla owners – and it’s still just Level 2.

Despite the system’s name, Tesla’s website states that the current tech features, “require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.”

This summer, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released data showing there were 392 crashes involving Level 2 driver-assistance systems between July 2021 and May 2022. Of those crashes, 273 involved Teslas using Autopilot or Full Self-Driving mode – and five of those Tesla crashes were fatal.

The company is facing a class-action lawsuit in California and a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for its claims about the driverless capabilities of its cars.

Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment.

At Level 3, the car can drive itself some of the time in certain situations or up to certain speeds – for instance, in traffic jams – although you still have to pay attention in case you suddenly have to take over.

Although a few automakers, including Honda and Mercedes, have introduced Level 3 systems in their home markets of Japan and Germany, respectively, none is approved for roads in Canada or the United States.

Then there’s Level 4, where cars can fully drive themselves along a fixed route without a driver. Right now, none of these are for sale – although they are being tested in some cities. Typically, they’re being tried in areas with light traffic.

For instance, Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., offers self-driving ride-sharing in Chandler, Ariz., and for its employees in San Francisco. Last week, it announced it intends to test the service in Los Angeles.

Also, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. is running five self-driving delivery trucks in Toronto – with a remote driver keeping tabs, just in case.

Level 5, where cars can drive themselves on any road in any weather or traffic conditions, isn’t here and might not be for decades.

“We are a long way away,” Andringa said. So don’t take your attention off the road, even if some car companies would like to sell you on the idea that it’s safe to do so.

Have a question about the future of transportation technology? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and please put ‘The Road Ahead’ in your subject line.