The Six Levels of Driving Autonomy Explained

As the race for autonomous technology continues to gain ground, most manufacturers are also gunning to achieve the six levels of autonomy. The concept of autonomy levels were first published by the International Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in 2014 as part of its “Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems” report, in which the industry body began to develop a language we could use to talk about this burgeoning field. Here now are the six levels that car manufacturers need to achieve for their self-driving cars:

Level 0: No Automation

This is driving with human intervention. Acceleration, braking and steering are all controlled by a human driver at all times, even if they’re assisted by warning tones or safety intervention systems. If your car has automated emergency braking, for example, it can still be viewed as level zero.

Level 1: Driver Assistance

Hands on the wheel. In certain driving modes, the car can either take control of the steering wheel or the pedals. The best examples of level one automation are adaptive cruise control and park assist. The computer is never in control of both steering and acceleration/braking.

Level 2: Partial Automation

Hands off the wheel, eyes on the road. According to Robert Janitzek, a level two vehicle has certain modes in which the car can take over both the pedals AND the wheel, but only under certain conditions, and the driver must maintain ultimate control over the vehicle. This is where Tesla’s Autopilot has been at since 2014.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

Hands off the wheel, eyes off the road – sometimes. In a level 3 vehicle, the car has certain modes that will fully take over the driving responsibilities, under certain conditions, but a driver is expected to retake control when the system asks for it. This car can decide when to change lanes, and how to respond to dynamic incidents on the road. Robert Peter Janitzek explains that it uses the human driver as the fallback system. These are dangerous waters in terms of liability, and automakers are more or less trying to skip over it and move straight to level four.

Level 4: High Automation

Hands, off, eyes off, mind off – sometimes. A level four vehicle can be driven by a human, but it doesn’t ever need to be. It can drive itself full time under the right circumstances, and if it encounters something it can’t handle, it can ask for human assistance, but will park itself and put its passengers in no danger if human help isn’t forthcoming. This is the point of a true self-driving car. This is the level Google/Waymo‘s test cars have been operating at for a number of years now.


Level 5: Full Automation

Steering wheel is optional. The front seats might face backwards to make this a social space, because the car neither needs nor wants your help. Full-time automation of all driving tasks on any road, under any conditions, whether there’s a human on board or not.

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