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. So, as a PSA, here’s the official definition list of automation, from level 0 to 5 (SAE definitions):

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 Assistance. The driver still drives, but the car can, through onboard computers, control speed or steering, though not at the same time. My car is level 1 autonomous. With adaptive cruise control and lane assist, If I took my hands off the steering wheel, and the car will make sure that both keep a safe distance to the car in front of me, and stay in my lane, even in moderate turns. 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. A level 2 car can steer, break, and accelerate under certain conditions. It is actually (somewhat) self-driving, but still requires a driver for most of its actions. Automated driving needs to be actively engaged by the driver. A number of cars have systems that fall in this category, including the Audi Traffic Jam Assist, Tesla Autopilot, Volvo Pilot Assist, and Cadillac Super Cruise.

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. Tesla Autopilot arguably falls into this category.

Level 4: High Automation. The car can self-drive in most conditions, including planning a route and driving it with minimal intervention. The driver must be in the car, though, and be ready to intervene if necessary. There are cars at level 4, but they are generally all in a limited test scenario.

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.

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.

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