The Five Levels of Autonomous Driving

3 min read


In 2014, and again in 2016, The Society of Automotive Engineers published a classification system of six different levels based on the execution of steering and acceleration/deceleration, monitoring of the driving environment, fallback performance of dynamic driving tasks, and system capability (expressway merging, high-speed cruising, or low-speed traffic jams).


LEVEL 0 - NO AUTOMATION                                                       

If you own an older vehicle, it is likely at this level. As the number implies, there is no automation at this level. While the vehicle may have a traditional cruise control, warning, or momentary intervention system, a human driver is required for steering, acceleration, deceleration, and the monitoring of the driving environment.


If you own a modern vehicle, it may be at this level because it has one advanced driver-assistance feature. The driver is still responsible for all other dynamic driving tasks and monitoring the driving environment, but a driver assistance system may steer, accelerate, or decelerate the vehicle using information about the environment to, for example, adjust cruise control or maintain a lane.


If you own a modern luxury vehicle, it may be at this level. Level 2 vehicles have two or more advanced driver assistance systems, such as adaptive cruise control, active lane-keep assist, and automatic emergency braking, which can be used in coordination. Even at this level, the driver is still responsible for monitoring the driving environment, performing all other dynamic driving tasks, and taking over dynamic driving tasks when necessary, so these are definitely not fully self-driving cars.


At this level, the vehicle has an automated driving system that is capable of full control under certain operating conditions, such as low-speed highway traffic jams. In addition to handling dynamic driving tasks, the system can also monitor the driving environment using sensors like LiDAR. The driver, however, must be prepared to take over dynamic driving tasks when necessary.

Google developed Level 3 test vehicles in 2012, but decided against going to market because human drivers quickly became complacent and slow to retake control of the vehicle when required. Ford also decided to skip Level 3 and proceed to Level 4 because they felt that asking the driver to suddenly take over a vehicle in trouble was an unfair proposition. Despite these reservations, Audi aims to sell the first Level 3 vehicle, the A8, in 2018.


As the name implies, this is the level where things become like science fiction. The vehicle is capable of completing trips without driver intervention or even without a driver at all. However, the vehicle can operate only under select conditions considering the road type, geography, and weather. For that reason, the vehicle would likely still have driver controls like a steering wheel and pedals. Outside of select conditions, the vehicle must be able to abort the trip if the driver does not take control. There are currently no Level 4 production vehicles available to consumers.


This is the final level of vehicle automation, with a steering wheel or a driver being optional. The vehicle can operate itself under any conditions a human can. The only driver involvement necessary is entering the destination.



Also published on Medium.


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