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The 6 levels of automation, as developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International, for self driving cars.

Six Levels of Driving automation

SAE’s new standard J3016 outlined 6 levels of automation for suppliers, car manufacturers and policymakers to use to classify the level of system sophistication.

Level 0: No Automation 

“The driver is in total control”

At this level the driver is in total control of the vehicle at all times, the driver performs all driving tasks.

These are the cars we all love and know. The driver decides when to go faster, when to apply the brakes and slow down and when to use the steering wheel to manoeuvre . The driver may be assisted by warning signals, nevertheless, this is broadly viewed as Level 0. Example: The everyday car, manual or auto,  owned by friends and family.

Level 1: Driver Assistance 

“Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, mind on the situation”

For Level 1, the driver is still in control of the overall operation and safety of the vehicle. However, the vehicle control system has the capacity to take over at least one vital function either the steering activity or acceleration/deceleration activity for a finite period of time, but with no sustained driver assistance system. Typically, at no point in time is the control system able to  control the steering and acceleration activities simultaneous. Examples: Any car with autonomous cruise control (ACC).

Level 2: Partial Automation 

“Eyes on the road, hands off the wheel, mind on the situation”

At this level the driver is still accountable for the driving operation of the vehicle and is expected be a driver, including monitoring road conditions. However, under certain conditions the car can take over acceleration, braking and steering functions.  Examples: Cadillac’s Super Cruise, Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, Volvo Pilot Assist, General Motors Super Cruise, Nissan ProPilot Assist, Tesla Autopilot.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

“Eyes off the road (sometimes), hands off the wheel, mind on the situation”

This is the level where the vehicle can drive itself, but the driver must pay attention and be prepared to take over at any time. The car’s driver assistance system would notify the driver when intervention is needed. Essentially, the car is able to understand and recognise when to change lanes on the road and how to respond to dynamic incidents, with the expectation that the human driver still performs all remaining aspects of driving and uses the driver as the fallback system. Car manufactures generally consider this level to be hazardous, only because car drivers tend to stop paying attention and put too much faith in the technology. Example: The Audi AI traffic jam pilot – A8 Sedan is a level 3 SAE conditional automation and the world’s first system.

Level 4:. High Automation 

“Eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, mind on the situation (sometimes)”

The high automation at this level means that the car can be driver driven, but it is not necessary. The automated driving system allows the car to  drive itself full-time provided the backup system is in place  so that if one technology fails, it will still be operational. The car can also ask for driver assistance If it encounters a challenge, however, if human interaction does not re-engage with the vehicle it will pull over and shut down. Example: Waymo, formerly the Google self-driving car project.

Level 5: Full Automation 

“Driver not required”

This level has zero expectation of human driver intervention while the car dominates and commands itself with mastery under all conditions. This includes full-time car automation of all driving activities under any circumstance and on any road, whether there’s a passenger on board or not. At this level of automation the cars do not necessarily need accelerators, steering wheels or brake pedals and, therefore, will most likely look different to other cars that we see on a regular basis. Examples: None in production … yet.

While we will not be seeing fully self-driving cars the rapid pace of innovation in the automotive industry means that the time of robotic drivers may be a lot closer than you think.