14 Surprising Facts About Self-Driving Cars

In 2024, more people are interested in self-driving cars than ever. From their looks to their practicality (and every cool feature in between), many drivers would love it if their next vehicle had self-driving capabilities.

Self-driving cars are becoming all the rage, but the technology has had an exciting history prior to today. I've curated a thoughtful list of some of the most surprising facts surrounding these vehicles. It's enough information to get you through your next dinner party at the very least. Let's dive in!

1. There Are Six Levels of Vehicle Automation

Image Credit: Tesla.

Self-driving cars don't all fit into the same category of autonomy. In fact, there are six levels of vehicle automation, ranging from Level 0 (no driving automation) to Level 6 (full driving automation). Trust me, as a society, we are far from Level 6; even current Teslas on the road today max out at Level 2.

Even the biggest supporters of self-driving technology aren't sure about the road map; for now, everyday drivers won't experience anything past Level 2.

2. They Rely Heavily on Sensors

Image Credit: Dllu, Own Work – CC BY-Sa 4.0/Wiki Commons.

While old-fashioned cameras are sometimes equipped in self-driving cars, the prevailing backend technology is LiDAR-equipped sensors that give the vehicle's computer a clear view of what's around it at all times.

LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging and was first developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The technology was initially created to map the ocean floor!

3. The NHTSA Backs the Technology

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Self-driving technology has been a powerful ally with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to NHTSA, they have high hopes for the technology and that it can prevent future driving deaths.

“One day, automated driving systems, which some refer to as automated vehicles, may be able to handle the whole task of driving when we don't want to or can't do it ourselves,” the NHTSA writes.

4. It's Still Evolving

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

While seeing a self-driving car on the road is downright amazing the first time you come across one, the underlying technology that powers what you see on the streets today is ever-evolving.

No commercially available vehicle is capable of Level 3 or higher autonomy, meaning human supervision is still needed while driving. Some companies do this remotely, while others require the driver to be attentive behind the wheel.

5. Self-Driving Cars Crash More Frequently

Image Credit: Dllu, Own Work – CC BY 4.0/Wiki Commons.

It's true; self-driving cars crash more frequently. according to a recent study from Forbes. The reason is straightforward: people trust the technology powering these cars too much. Peruse YouTube for a few minutes, and you'll find out that self-driving cars require the driver's full attention. Yet tons of people record themselves doing anything but focus on the road.

Ultimately, this equates to self-driving cars crashing more frequently than their internal combustion counterparts. Forbes found that self-driving cars are involved in double the number of accidents per mile driven compared to traditional vehicles.

6. The First Driverless Car Was Made in 1925

Image Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives – CC BY 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Believe it or not, General Motors is credited with developing the technology for the first driverless car ever made back in 1925, where the car could be controlled with a remote control while following it. They unveiled the prototype in 1939, and the concept came to fruition in 1958.

Of course, this early driverless vehicle has none of the modern technology seen in offerings from companies like Waymo, Google, and other self-driving startups. Still, it's cool to discover a legacy automobile maker leading the way in this aspect of innovation.

7. The First Death Involved a Rideshare Driver

Uber autonomous vehicle prototype testing in San Francisco
Image Credit: Dllu, Own Work – CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Unfortunately, achieving full autonomy in our vehicles has been bumpy. In 2018, an Uber test driver operating a self-driving Tesla struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, marking the first pedestrian death in a self-driving car accident.

The driver pleaded guilty in 2023 and was sentenced to probation, proving that self-driving cars and our justice system have a long way to go.

8. Unsafe Speeds Contribute to Accidents

Image Credit: Tesla.

Self-driving cars are propelled by electric motors, and the vehicle's sense of speed is entirely different from traditional car engines. In other words, you can quickly go fast, and it doesn't feel any different from cruising down the road at a non-insane speed!

While self-driving cars require at least some human input, it's far too easy for someone to sit in the driver's seat of a Tesla and allow the vehicle to travel far too quickly, leading to accidents.

9. Tesla's “Autopilot” is Anything But

Image Credit: Tesla.

Facts are facts. Despite how Tesla markets their vehicle's self-driving capabilities, the company still manufactures cars at Level 2 autonomy. They still have a long way to go before they hit Level 5.

Tesla's claims that their cars can drive themselves (CEO Elon Musk has said this countless times in public) is misleading at best. Yet that doesn't stop the company from touting features like Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (for extra fees, of course).

10. They're More Likely to be Involved in a Rear Collision

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

According to a study by Science Direct, “64.2 percent of accidents involving autonomous vehicles were rear-end accidents, compared to 28.3 percent of accidents involving conventional vehicles.”

That's an interesting fact because conventional wisdom suggests that due to the modern, fast-acting sensors on the front of self-driving cars, they would be able to stop in time. I guess people love brake-checking self-driving cars!

11. They Can Reduce Traffic Congestion

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

The allure of self-driving cars is that, hopefully, they can one day make the world a more environmentally friendly, safe, and efficient place. If things go right, roads consisting of self-driving cars will theoretically reduce traffic congestion.

That sounds amazing, doesn't it? We'd all love to make our morning and afternoon commutes without suffering from endless traffic. Hopefully, one day, this will become a reality.

12. California Leads the Way

Image Credit: Tim Draper/Steve Jurvetson – CC BY 2.0/Wiki Commons.

In 2023, fully driverless cars logged 3.3 million miles of testing in California, a rate that outpaces all other states in the country by over five times.

For decades, California has been at the forefront of the self-driving revolution. Ever since Tesla was founded in San Carlos, California, the state has prided itself on being a haven for innovation and industry-changing advancements that will one day change the world.

13. Waymo Has Logged Over 20 Million Miles of Road Testing

Image Credit: Dllu, Own Work – CC BY 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Over in Phoenix, the self-driving taxi service Waymo is leading the way in innovation and safety, boasting over 20 million miles of lifetime rides throughout the company's history.

You're missing out if you haven't experienced a taxi ride in one of Waymo's autonomous vehicles. I had the privilege of riding in one last summer, and my jaw was on the floor throughout my ride. I can't believe we live in a time where this is actually possible!

14. Summoning Them is Fun

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Not all facts about self-driving vehicles are all doom and gloom. Many models on the road today have a “summon feature,” which means the car can autonomously drive to you across a short distance (say, from inside your garage to the end of your driveway) with a touch of a button.

How cool is that? If you ask me, the future of self-driving should be more about fun party tricks and quirky features like summoning instead of convincing people cars can actually drive themselves.

Author: Chris Phelan

Chris Phelan is an American culture writer, frequently dabbling in the travel, finance, and entertainment fields. He currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina where he is constantly amazed at the number of black bears wandering down his street on any given day.

His work can be seen on Wealth of Geeks, NBC, Bravo, USA Network, Yahoo, and countless other online publications.

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