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The 6 levels of self-driving car - and what they mean for motorists

SAE has defined six levels of autonomy for self-driving, here’s what they mean.

Image: Tesla

THE SELF-DRIVING car revolution is well and truly underway, and autonomous driving is the buzz word today for most major car manufacturers.

But not all autonomous  cars are created equal. There are in fact six levels of car autonomy from “no automation” to “full automation” as defined by the SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers), and here’s what they mean:

Level 0 (No automation)

Most vehicles are at this level today. The human driver controls all aspects of driving – from steering to operating the pedals, monitoring surroundings, navigating, and determining when to signal or manoeuvre. The car may have some automated warning tones and automated emergency braking.

Level 1 (Driver assistance)

Vehicles with this level of autonomy, in some driving modes, can handle steering or throttle and braking – but never both. However, the driver must be ready to take over those functions if called upon by the vehicle.

Level 1 cars also have some systems that use information about the driving environment, but the human driver monitors the driving environment. Level 1 autonomous systems have been available on production cars for several years, and features such as self parking and lane assistance fall into this bracket.

Level 2 (Partial assistance)

Source: Nick Dimbleby

At Level 2, vehicles can handle the steering and throttle and braking in some driving modes. The driver has to be alert at all times and ready to take over the control of the vehicle, and is still responsible for monitoring the surroundings, traffic and road conditions.

An example of Level 2 autonomy is Tesla’s Autopilot. This is a suite of driver assistance technologies including Traffic Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer with lane change, which enables automatic steering on undivided roads but with speed restrictions.

Level 3 (Conditional assistance)

Source: Audi Ireland

With Level 3 autonomy, the vehicle can monitor its surroundings, change lanes, and can control the steering, throttle and braking in certain situations, such as on motorways. However, the driver must be ready to take back control of the vehicle when required.

The new Audi A8 is the first production car to have Level 3 autonomy. At the push of a button, the A8′s AI Traffic Jam Pilot manages starting, steering, throttle and braking in slow-moving traffic at up to 60km/h on major roads where a physical barrier separates the two carriageways. When the system reaches its limits the driver is alerted to take over the driving.

Because of local laws and regulations regarding autonomous diving, Audi has said it will use a step-by-step approach to the introduction of the traffic jam pilot in its production models.

Level 4 (High automation)

Source: Newspress

Level 4 automated cars can drive themselves with a human driver onboard. The car takes control of the starting, steering throttle and braking as well as monitoring its surroundings in a wide range of environments and handling the parking duties.

When the conditions are right, the driver can switch the car to autonomous mode then sit back, relax and take their eyes off the road. When the vehicle encounters something that it cannot read or handle it will request the assistance of the driver.

However, even if the driver does not intervene and something goes wrong, the car will continue to manoeuvre autonomously. These cars are truly self-driving and the Google/Waymo self-driving vehicle has been operating at the level of autonomy for a few years.

Level 5 (Full automation)

Source: Newspress

At this level, the vehicle needs no human control at all. It doesn’t need to have pedals, or a steering wheel, or even a human onboard.

The car is fully automated and can do all driving tasks on any road, under any conditions, whether there’s a human on board or not.

Several current concept cars are Level 5 autonomous vehicles – including the Volkswagen Group SeDriC (SElf-DRIving Car), above, and the Audi AIcon concept.

READ: 5 futuristic concepts from the Frankfurt motor show >

READ: There’s a new emissions testing regime on the way – here’s what it means for you >

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About the author:

Melanie May  / https://www.melaniemay.com

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