Breaking Down The 6 Levels of Self-Driving Automation

News and opinions about autonomous, aka self-driving, cars are everywhere, especially if you’re in the transportation industry. There is much to say about such vehicles – in fact, this is the start of a blog series on that very subject! But to have a discussion, we first need to know what we’re talking about!

There are actually multiple levels of self-driving capability, so when someone talks about automation, they could be referencing basic features that most people use everyday or they could be speculating about futuristic vehicles that will zoom around without a single human on the inside a la The Jetsons. In an attempt to wrangle this range of meanings, the Society of Automotive Engineers developed a classification system of automation, which has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation. So today on the blog, we want to help clarify future conversations by breaking down the different levels of self-driving automation!!

Level 0 – No Automation: This is exactly what you think; a human driver performs all aspects of driving. Vehicles at Level 0 may still have alert systems, such as lane departure warnings or blind spot monitoring.

Level 1 – Driver Assistance: A human driver controls most vehicle operations, but a specific function may be automatically executed by a driver-assistance system. An example of Level 1 action is the acceleration and deceleration of cruise control. Most cars on the road have this level of automation.

Level 2 – Partial Automation: A human driver generally controls vehicle operations, but multiple driver-assistance systems may work together to execute simultaneous functions. This means that at times the driver will be physically disengaged from operating the vehicle, with their hands off the steering wheel and their foot off the pedal. A typical Level 2 action is auto-parking, but it could also include integrating cruise control and lane-centering for simple stretches of road. This level requires complete driver attention and readiness to retake control. These features are newer, but becoming more and more common.

Level 3 – Conditional Automation: A comprehensive Automated Driving System can control all aspects of driving and road monitoring. This is when the vehicle becomes more fully aware of traffic and environmental conditions and can respond to its surroundings. A human driver is still needed to intervene at times, such as during the first and last mile of a trip or in abnormal situations (e.g. construction areas without painted traffic lines). Achieving Level 3 and 4 automation is the big race in which OEMs are currently engaged.

Level 4 – High Automation: A comprehensive Automated Driving System can control all aspects of driving and road monitoring, from departure to arrival, without driver management. These vehicles are officially autonomous, but they are limited to “operational design domains.” In other words, while Level 4 self-driving works in almost all driving scenarios, rare exceptions, such as off-road driving, will still require a driver. These are the innovative vehicles you see news stories about, from the likes of Tesla and Google.

Level 5 – Full Automation: A comprehensive Automated Driving System controls all aspects of driving and road monitoring in every driving scenario, from departure to arrival, without driver management. Vehicles with Level 5 autonomy will not even need steering wheels or gas pedals, as no driver will ever be needed at all. These vehicles are still closer to science-fiction than reality, though they seem more possible every day.

That’s a wide range of various self-driving capabilities! The differences between each level will be significant as we consider the effects this technology will have on the transportation industry. We look forward to having that discussion with you. And we’d like to hear from you!! What level of autonomous vehicle would you be comfortable driving or riding in?? Let us know in the comments below!!


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