What Are The Autonomous Driving Levels?

At the moment, it seems like every second news story is about autonomous technology and cars. But we don’t seem to be getting any closer to a robo-car utopia.

While car technology is definitely making progress, it’s a little tricky to measure how far we’ve come because the term ‘autonomous car’ covers everything from a 2005 Citroen C4 with lane keeping to Google’s fully autonomous Waymo prototypes.

The good news is that the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has broken autonomous driving down into six tiers or levels, which makes it a lot easier to understand what improvements are being made and how significant they are.

In this blog, I’ll take a look at each of the five levels in more detail and give you some examples of what cars fall into what levels.

Level 0 — No Automation

With level zero vehicles, there is no automation technology and the human driver is responsible for all the ‘dynamic driving’ tasks.

This level can still include things like parking sensors and cameras, which warn or inform the driver without actually taking over control.

  • Steering and Acceleration: Human driver
  • Monitoring the Environment: Human driver
  • Dynamic Driving Tasks: Human driver

Level 1 — Driver Assistance

This is the first level of actual automation. With level one vehicles, the car assists with the steering or acceleration in specific driving circumstances using environment information.

Level one technologies include automated lane keeping and adaptive cruise control. With both of these technologies, the car takes limited control of the steering or the acceleration but relies on the human driver to perform all other dynamic driving tasks.

Lots of cars have this sort of technology. It’s particularly popular in long-distance cruisers like the Skoda Superb and the Audi A8.

  • Steering and Acceleration: Human driver and car
  • Monitoring the Environment: Human driver
  • Dynamic Driving Tasks: Human driver

Level 2 — Partial Automation

This level is where most modern automation technology has got to. With level two cars, the car controls both the steering and acceleration using information for the environment. Again, the car assumes the human driver will control the remaining dynamic driving tasks.

The most prominent example of level two technology is Tesla’s Autopilot, which includes a suite of systems like traffic aware cruise control, smart summon and emergency braking.

  • Steering and Acceleration: Car
  • Monitoring the Environment: Human driver
  • Dynamic Driving Tasks: Human driver

Level 3 — Conditional Automation

The third level of autonomous driving is super exciting and is the next big leap for the automotive world. With level three technology, the car will handle all aspects of dynamic driving but it does so with the expectation that the human driver is ready and willing to intervene when required.

It’s debatable if any cars have level three technologies at the moment. Audi claims the new A8’s AI Traffic Jam Pilot counts as the car can handle starting, steering, acceleration and braking in slow-moving traffic.

Since this is the first stage where the car takes over the whole driving task, expect slow progress as manufacturers compete with strict regulations.

  • Steering and Acceleration: Car
  • Monitoring the Environment: Car
  • Dynamic Driving Tasks: Human driver

Level 4 — High Automation

The difference between conditional automation (level three) and high automation (level four) is a small but significant one. With level four tech, the car will continue controlling the dynamic driving tasks even if the human driver fails to respond to a request to intervene.

There aren’t any production cars with this level of technology but Google’s prototype car checks the box.

  • Steering and Acceleration: Car
  • Monitoring the Environment: Car
  • Dynamic Driving Tasks: Car

Level 5 — Full Automation

Level five is the pinnacle of automotive automation. With level five technology, the human driver is completely unnecessary. The car handles all dynamic driving tasks all the time and does not need a human driver for any of it.

There’s a lot of prototypes out there but we’re still years away from seeing any sort of fully autonomous commercial vehicles on the roads.

  • Steering and Acceleration: Car
  • Monitoring the Environment: Car
  • Dynamic Driving Tasks: Car