Understanding the 5 Driverless Cars’ Levels of Autonomy

You may have seen a lot of new information about driverless cars in recent years. They will disrupt certain industries, they will change the world as we know it, and so forth. Almost all car manufacturers are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into self-driving technologies.

But with all that information, one basic fact tends to get lost along the way.

What does autonomous driving actually mean and why are there different levels? Read on to find out.

A Short Trip Back in Time

We’ve seen massive technological progress in the latest years. Our gadgets got bigger, smarter, faster. Electric cars became the new hit. There’s even talk about autonomous flying vehicles

But the law always had a hard time keeping up with these new technologies.

However, 2013 was the year when most car manufacturers started testing their driverless cars prototypes. Since it required the vehicles to be on public streets, the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stepped in.

They have defined five different levels of autonomous driving, but they were officially adopted several years later, in 2016. It’s really important to keep in mind that these levels apply to the system, not the vehicle itself.

Driverless Cars’ Levels of Autonomy 0-5

Let’s do a full rundown of these levels, so you can better understand which stands for which.

Level 0 – you control everything: steering, brakes, throttle, power. There is no form of autonomy or automation whatsoever.

Level 1 – the human driver still controls most of the vehicle’s functions, but one of them (steering or acceleration) can be done automatically by the car’s system.

Level 2 – here is where things get a bit confusing. The second level involves at least one driver assistance system of “both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment” to be automated. It includes aspects like cruise control and lane centering.

Moreover, it means the “driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off the pedal at the same time.” However, the driver must always be ready to take over control of the vehicle.

Level 3 – drivers are still necessary, but they can shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions.

The driver is still present and will intervene if necessary, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way he does for the previous levels.

Level 4 – driverless cars with level 4 autonomy are in fact “fully autonomous.” These vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” However, they can’t – yet – face absolutely any scenario out there.

A level 5 autonomous vehicle may or may not have a driving wheel. Its performance is equal to a human driver, regardless of scenario or road conditions. There is no mass production car at the moment which has obtained a level 5 autonomy status.

So, what’s the Big Deal Anyway?

Are you still wondering why these levels are relevant and important? The answer is simple: they serve as general guidelines for how complex and technologically advanced a certain vehicle is.

You may not need to know precisely the level a car is at in terms of self-driving capabilities. Moreover, for the average buyer, the levels shift from five to just three: automate, autonomous and driverless.

Elon Musk has recently said that Tesla plans to test level 5 autonomy at the end of 2017. All Tesla vehicles built after October 2016 include the technical capabilities needed for level 5 autonomy, but the software isn’t yet mature enough to be enabled. The rest of their somewhat older vehicles are somewhere between level 2 and level 3 autonomy.

Getting back to our topic of discussion, these autonomy levels are important for driverless cars, especially if you take into consideration the insurance costs.

Granted, there’s no need for you to worry about that yet, but the law does. For example, if the roadmap for self-driving cars is respected, by 2040 the number of car accidents might go down by 80%. Which means insurance companies should adapt.

Key Takeaways

While driverless cars’ autonomy levels might be relevant from a legal point of view, they also offer a hint into what the future may look like.

Level 5 doesn’t need to have a steering wheel. It can perform just like a human does, but with the added benefit it ‘sees’ everything and can communicate efficiently with other traffic participants. The higher the autonomy, the higher the safety on public roads.

If you have any questions regarding this topic, feel free to ask away in the comments section. Also, if you’ve enjoyed this article, go ahead and subscribe to my weekly newsletter on self-driving cars and all things about the mobility of the future.

Philipp Kandal