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Autonomous driving levels 0 to 5: What’s the difference?

August 4, 2017

Autonomous Driving Technology
Autonomous Driving Technology | Level 4/5 depicted above

With Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Driving systems on everyone’s lips these days, the battle to create the best driverless car has never been fiercer. Tesla’s Elon Musk recently announced that every car in their production line will have the capability for ‘full autonomy’ by 2018 and Ford predicts its autonomous ride-sharing platforms will become commonplace in 2021!

Until very recently it was only a thing of science fiction, but the road is being paved for driverless cars at a rapid pace. Various other large technology and automotive companies such as Google, Apple, Nvidia, Audi, Volvo, Ford & BMW amongst others are constantly working on creating the perfect driverless car.

With this in mind, and to provide some structure and a means to classify, the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE International) has devised a scale of the various levels for automated driving systems. These levels range from ‘0’, which means human controlled to ‘5’ which refers to full autonomy.

Autonomous Driving Technology
Autonomous Driving | Driverless car

Here’s a quick summary about autonomy levels 0-5. Most significant is that, from Level 3 onward, the automated driving system becomes able to scan & monitor the driving environment.

Level 0 | No Automation | The Stone Age

The car is not automated in any way and relies on a human for all of the tasks. The way it has been for the last century!

Level 1 | Driver Assisted | Relax a little bit

The human is still expected to do the majority of the work, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the car.

Level 2 | Basic Automation | Enjoy the scenery for a change…

Now it gets a little more interesting – here at least one driver assistance system of ‘both steering and speed using information about the driving environment’ is automated, but a human control the other elements of driving. The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle at this level.

Level 3 | Partial Automation | Look mom, no hands!

Even though drivers are still necessary at this level, level 3 vehicles and above are considered ‘automated driving systems’ and can make decisions themselves. For example, the car will be capable of sensing a slower moving vehicle in front of it before taking the decision to overtake. The human driver will intervene if necessary, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way it does for level 2.

Level 4 | High Automation | Safe to doze off…

This level is what is meant by ‘fully autonomous’ and is expected by many experts will be reached by 2021. According to SAE, Level 4 vehicles are ‘designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.’ It is however still limited to the ‘operational design domain (ODD)’ of the vehicle. This means it does not cover every driving scenario but, if something goes wrong, the car would be able to ‘handle’ most unexpected situations without intervention.

Level 5 | Full Automation | Passenger Only

This refers to a fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle’s driving performance to equal or better that of a human in any driving scenario. This would include extreme environments like off-road areas etc. At this level, vehicles do not need any pedals, steering wheels, or controls for a human to take charge.

Autonomous Driving Technology
Driverless Car System

‘So, what do I care?’ I hear you ask. Well, the rise of autonomous driving is going to have a major impact on your life in the not-too-distant future. For one, automated vehicles could replace courier / delivery fleets or transporting employees, at a business level for example. At a personal level, you would be able to gain productive hours in the day by working or relaxing instead of driving during daily commutes.

Among others, the car insurance industry will be turned on its head by eliminating the human factor. A report by KPMG predicts that car accidents will drop by as much as 80% by 2040 due to driver-less car technology.

Cars will continue to become safer and safer as it moves towards fully-autonomous (level 5) driving levels. That in itself is something to look forward to, especially taking into account that South Africa has some of the most dangerous roads in the world.

Until then, drive safely!

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