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Understanding the Various Levels of Autonomy in Vehicles

Autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid | Photo: Waymo
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Guillaume Rivard
From 0 to 5, where are we at?

By now you’ve certainly heard about autonomous or self-driving vehicles. Heck, it seems like every week there’s something new to report about this futuristic mobility solution, and we’ve posted a number of articles on the topic from auto shows and technology events such as the CES in Las Vegas.

Autonomous cars are coming fast to a road near you. In fact, some will say they’re already here. You see, automakers have been working like crazy on advanced safety systems and driver assist technologies for the past decade or so, and what we have today are vehicles with varying levels of autonomy.

In order for the industry, governments and the public to all be on the same page, the international Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defined a common language and a standard (J3016) in its 2014 report titled Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems. Here is a breakdown…

Levels 0 to 5

Before going any further, you must know that the levels apply to the driving automation feature(s) that are engaged in any given instance of on-road operation of an equipped vehicle.

Level 0 - No Automation
The human at the wheel steers, brakes, accelerates, and negotiates traffic.

Level 1 - Driver Assistance
Under certain conditions, the car controls either the steering or the vehicle speed, but not both simultaneously, while the driver performs all other aspects of driving and has full responsibility for monitoring the road and taking over if the assistance system fails to act appropriately. A good example of that is adaptive cruise control.

Level 2 - Partial Automation
At this point the vehicle can steer, accelerate and brake in certain circumstances. The driver needs to perform tactical maneuvers such as responding to traffic signals, changing lanes and scanning for hazards. They may also have to keep a hand on the wheel. Consider Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist, Cadillac’s Super Cruise, Nissan’s ProPILOT Assist, Tesla’s Autopilot and Volvo’s Pilot Assist.

Level 3 - Conditional Automation
The vehicle can, in the right conditions, manage most aspects of driving, including monitoring the environment. The system will request the driver to intervene when it encounters a scenario it can’t navigate, meaning the driver must still pay attention and be ready to take over at any time. With systems like Audi’s AI Traffic Jam Pilot, this is the highest level of autonomy accessible right now (debuting on the 2019 Audi A8).

Level 4 - High Automation
A steering wheel and pedals remain, but no human input or oversight is required except under select conditions defined by factors such as road type or geographic area (like poor weather or other unusual environments). The driver might manage all driving duties on surface streets then become a passenger as the car enters a highway. Hyundai’s NEXO is currently being tested as a Level 4 car.

Level 5 - Full Automation
This is the true “driverless” car that can operate on any road and in any conditions a human driver could negotiate. There is no steering wheel and no pedals. All you have to do is enter a destination in the navigation system, either through touch or voice command.

Now, the question we’d like to ask you is: How much do you trust a self-driving car?

Guillaume Rivard
Guillaume Rivard
Automotive expert