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On A Scale Of 1 to 5, How Autonomous Is Your Car?


Now it's time for Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with them. Today, instead of a word, we have a phrase - the five levels of autonomy. And no, it is not the lecture you give to your offspring about when they're planning to move out. It's about cars, self-driving or autonomous cars. And with just about every major car company involved, the race to create a self-driving car that will appeal to the masses is on. NPR's Sonari Glinton joins us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. to tell us more. Sonari, thanks for joining us. Happy New Year.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Happy New Year to you.

MARTIN: So I sure want to know what this phrase levels of autonomy means. But the reason we're talking about it, I take it, is that we're going to be hearing a lot about this at the Consumer Electronics Show later this week. Can you tell me more about that?

GLINTON: Well, the Consumer Electronics Show is where a lot of robots are going to be unleashed, and one of the things is robot cars or autonomous cars or self-driving cars. Now, the Society of Automotive Engineers created these levels. They have five levels. So level one would be a little bit of driver assistance, functions like steering wheel or cruise control or adaptive cruise control. And these levels go all the way up to level five, which is no steering wheel and you don't need to do anything. The car can come to you and pick you up and doesn't need you to go at all.

MARTIN: You know, I confess - and maybe this says something about me - that that seems scary to me. So I guess that, I mean - (laughter) you know, maybe that's the challenge for the car makers - right? - is getting people like me to accept that idea.

GLINTON: Of course it is. I mean, that's - that is now their job. We understand that this technology will save lives. More than 36,000 people are likely to be killed on the roads related to automobiles in a year. We know that the driver is largely the problem. Ninety-four percent of those accidents are caused by drivers. Now, there are two approaches to easing us into this. One is the BMW approach, is the way I like to call it, and then the other is Tesla. BMW represents the sort of older school. We'll give you a little bit - a feature here, a feature there, let you feel comfortable. Adaptive cruise control, lane assist, those things, like building steps...

MARTIN: Parking assist.

GLINTON: Yeah, parking assist - building on top of each other so the idea that when it comes to take off the reins, you will be totally comfortable. Tesla's doing it in a completely different way, which is saying, well, let's get this technology into consumers' hands and let them test it out and tell us what they like and what they don't like and let them feel comfortable about it.

MARTIN: So why is the whole question of the five levels of autonomy an important concept?

GLINTON: Everyone needs to know what is expected of the vehicle and what is expected of the driver. A level zero car requires you to put your hands on the steering wheel, your eyes on the road, your foot on the gas in - to move the car. A level four will require a little bit less, but it's still going to require you to be attentive and around. You still are going to have a role for some years to come when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

MARTIN: And what approach have government regulators taken so far toward this whole question of levels of autonomy? And do you foresee that changing?

GLINTON: The Department of Transportation under the Obama administration has said we've adopted these five levels of autonomy. We see this as a way to go. And we want to regulate this industry. You won't be able to bring a car to market unless, essentially, the Department of Transportation has a say-so over it. Now, there is some ambiguity about what will happen in the next administration, but this is essentially where the industry wants to go. Not just the car makers, but the car industry around the globe is moving towards autonomous vehicles.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sonari Glinton. He covers the auto industry, among other things, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Sonari, thank you so much for joining us. Happy New Year to you.

GLINTON: Happy New Year. It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.