What's the Difference Between a Self-Driving Car and a Semi-Autonomous Car?

Fran Majidi
April 23, 2019

When the subject of self-driving cars first came up a few years back, some people shook their heads in disbelief at the idea of roads being overtaken by unmanned machines. When the prototypes and concept cars of autonomous vehicles made their rounds at car shows, people began to see that this wasn’t a passing fad.The self-driving car, it became clear, was going to be the future.

The hesitation about futuristic cars then morphed into fear after a few accidents showed that the technology behind autonomous cars still wasn’t quite right yet: Remember the Uber self-driving car in Arizona that killed a pedestrian?. After that morbid news, there was a sudden lull in talks about the self-driving car until two years ago, when nearly every luxury car manufacturer introduced a semi-autonomous vehicle of their own: The Audi Traffic Jam Assist, the Cadillac SuperCruise, the Tesla Autopilot, the Nissan ProPilot, Lexus Safety Sense, BMW’s Traffic Jam Assist, Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, the Volvo Pilot Assist and the Infinity ProPilot. Even the names of the safety features on these cars hint at the fact that the cars still need to be manned -- and they do, with most of them requiring both hands on the wheel. If you’re asking yourself, “When will self driving cars be available?” no one has the answer quite yet. For now, we have almost-self-driving cars.

How Do Self-driving Cars Work?

Today, the main difference between semi-autonomous cars and regular cars is that they have cameras that are able to “see” objects in close proximity to the car. You’ll find these cameras on the sides of the vehicles and in the rear. Some even have extra cameras in the front of the car, including the rearview mirror. These cameras grant visibility to areas that would otherwise be blindspots for a driver. In fact, as of 2018, the law requires that all new cars are equipped with backup cameras, whether they claim to be semi-autonomous or not.

The transition to a self-driving society seems to be a gradual one, with the government writing into law each new feature that’s added for safety measures. The back-up cameras, for instance, have not only prevented accidents but they’ve also protected younger children who are most prone because they lack visibility due to their height. Self driving cars also employ radar, sonar tools and software to sense other objects and other cars on the road.

Self-Driving Cars Pros and Cons


The benefits of self driving cars are plenty. Not only do semi-autonomous cars lower the chances of human error, they often take over during emergency situations to prevent an accident. Having another set of eyes (or several sets of eyes) onboard can only be a step forward in terms of safety. For instance the Audi Traffic Jam Assist allows the car to take complete control. It will steer and even accelerate/brake for periods of time. The Cadillac SuperCruise also allows autonomous driving for hours if using Cadillac’s pre-mapped routes. The Tesla self-driving car allows for hands-free driving, longer than any car on the market. It uses radar and sonar tools which allow the car to change lanes and turn corners on its own. It could drive itself if it weren’t for the pesky law that requires hands to be on the wheel, for liability reasons more than safety. The Nissan ProPilot can do lots of things on its own, including steering, accelerating and braking but requires that hands be on the steering wheel at all times. The Lexus Safety Sense takes over when the driver gives up control (or loses control) and also employs radar to sense for pedestrians. The BMW Traffic Jam Assistant can take over at low speeds without much effort. The Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot and Volvo Pilot Assist are on par in allowing for a hands-free driving experience, coming in second after Tesla. Infinity, as always, is ahead of the game but understated. The QX89 has all the bells and whistles to detect collisions, other cars, pedestrians and more.


At least for now, the law is that when you want your semi-autonomous car to act autonomously, you must keep your hands on the wheel. This may sound contradictory to you because it is. But it’s the law and will be until time proves that the technology is able to prevent tragedies like the self-driving Uber car that struck and killed a pedestrian.

Insurance on a Self-driving Car

The self-driving car is yet to be fully realized but for now we have semi-autonomous cars, which are much safer than regular cars. You would think that because these cars are safer that we’d get a break in car insurance rates. However, car insurance for self driving cars is much more expensive because the equipment--the cameras, lidar, sonar and radar--is expensive to repair and replace. Also, there isn’t much data out there about how these cars handle themselves in accidents. Not only is the question of the safety of these cars still something that only time will tell, but there lingers the question of liability. If one of these cars is responsible for an accident, whose fault is it? The driver or the manufacturer of the car? As you can see, that’s why the current law states that drivers must have their hands on the wheel at all times. The cars are also equipped with warning systems that alert you when you do take your hands away for a period of time. As you can see, we are in a bit of limbo and it’s reflected in the laws surrounding car insurance. Until we have enough data on these cars, we’re left wondering how safe they really are and how much we should let them think for us, especially if we have children in the car.


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