Level what now?

Talking about self-driving cars can get confusing if you don’t get the lingo

When talking about self-driving cars with industry people, you may find yourself somewhat baffled. I know I do. Sure, there’s the tech side, which I can sort of follow, but not if we start diving deep into the technical details. But then there’s the lingo, the terminology that the industry applies, which can be a separate challenge all to itself.

One of the ones I’ve tried to get my head around is the whole idea of “levels” of self-driving cars. Because a self-driving car isn’t just a self-driving car. We’re potentially years away from a completely autonomous car, that can drive you to work, then drive home on it’s own, pick up your kids and take them to school. But there’s more to self-driving than that.

An organization called Society of Automotive Engineers have defined five levels of autonomous driving, as presented in the table below.

Level 0: No automation. Driver is completely responsible for all driving, though there may be warning and intervention systems, like blind spot warnings and ABS breaks.

Level 1: Driver Assist. The driver still drives, but the car can, through onboard computers, control speed or steering, though not both at the same time. Most new cars will have Level 1 Autonomy, if not better. But because this isn’t reliable to be able handle anything beyond the most basic scenarios, you aren’t allowed to take your hands off the wheel, and the functions serve only as an assist, an augmentation of the diver’s actions.

Level 2: Partial Automation. This is similar to Level 1, but the car can now perform several functions at the same time, and can often perform more complex tasks. So while a Level 1 will most likely have cruise control or lane assist (or at least only be able to use one at a time), a Level 2 will most likely have both, and the cruise control will be adaptive. It may also have a driver assist emergency breaking system, known as an Autonomous Emergency Breaking system, or AEB. Many new cars, in particular high-end cars, will have Level 2 Autonomy. This includes Audi, Volvo, Cadillac, and Tesla’s standard Autopilot.

Level 3: Conditional Automation. A mostly self-driving car, that does need to hand the wheel to the driver in certain situations, or under certain road conditions, such as sensor problems, or unfamiliar conditions. A small-ish number of new cars fall in this category, including some Mercedes and Volvo models, as well as Tesla with the advanced Autopilot, also known as Full Self-Drive (FSD) enabled. With this level of autonomy, the driver can turn his or her attention away from the driving, but must be able to retake control if need be.

This is also at time of posting the highest level of automation allowed on public roads anywhere in the world. The UK passed a law in 2021 that allows for the use of a Level 3 Autonomous car’s self-driving features to be used during congestion on freeways, provided the speed is lower than 60 km/h. Germany passed similar laws shortly after.

Level 4: High Automation. The car can self-drive in most conditions, including planning a route and driving it with minimal or no intervention. The driver can be in the car, and can, as the diagram says, retake control “if he or she wishes”. That’s a pretty big paradigm change, and the jump from Level 3 to Level 4 is arguably the highest in the diagram, rivaled only by the jump from Level 0 to Level 1. There are cars able to operate at this level, though only on test level, including Waymo.

Level 5: Full Automation. Also called “human optional” or “autonomous driving”. The car can operate in any situation or condition without a driver being present. The car not only drives itself, but also makes decisions regarding lane changes, turns, and traffic. There are a few projects that aim to conquer this at the test level, including Waymo’s autonomous taxis in Phoenix, AZ, Lyft’s announced launch of self-driving shared-car services in Las Vegas, NV, in 2023, and the intended roll-out of MobileEye’s self-driving taxis in Israel in 2022.

When most people say “self-driving cars” they refer to level 5 and level 5 only, but as the list shows, there are other definitions as well, and in fact, many of us drive cars that have some level of self-driving to them.

NOTE: All references to products, auto makers, and projects are correct at time of update (March 2022), but are of course subject to change.

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