Researchers predict that by 2025, we will see approximately 8 million uncrewed or semi-unmanned vehicles on the road. However, assistive technologies for driverless cars must first pass six driverless levels before they can be put on the road under the appropriate restrictions, such as geo-fencing.
How exactly are these levels classified? And which level are we in now?
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined six driverless levels – from Level 0 (fully manual) to Level 5 (fully autonomous). The U.S. Department of Transportation has adopted these driverless class guidelines.
Level 0 (No Automation)
Most cars on the road today are Level 0: manually controlled. A person performs the “dynamic driving task.” Although there may be systems in place to assist the driver, such as an emergency braking system, the assistance system does not actively “drive” the vehicle from a technical standpoint, so it is not considered automated driving.
Level 1 (Driver Assist)
This is the lowest level of automation. The vehicle has a separate automated driver assistance system, such as steering or acceleration (cruise control). Adaptive cruise control allows the vehicle to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front while the driver monitors other aspects of driving (such as steering and braking) and therefore meets the criteria for Level 1.
Level 2 (Partial Automation)
This refers to Advanced Driver Assistance Systems or ADAS. The vehicle is able to control the steering as well as acceleration or deceleration. Because a driver is in the car seat and can control the car at any time, this stage of autonomous driving is not quite driverless. Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac’s (GM) Super Cruise system both meet the Level 2 standard.
Level 3 (Conditional Automation)
From a technical standpoint, the leap from Level 2 to Level 3 is significant, but from a driver’s perspective, the difference is not insignificant, but it is not significant either.
Level 3 driverless cars have the ability to “detect the environment” and make their own decisions based on information, such as accelerating past a slow-moving vehicle. But this level still requires human control. The driver must remain alert and take control when the system is unable to perform its task.
Almost two years ago, Audi (Volkswagen) announced that the next-generation A8 (Audi’s flagship sedan) would be the world’s first mass-produced driverless Level 3 car. And they did. The Audi A8L will roll into dealerships in the fall of 2019. The Audi A8L features Traffic Jam Pilot technology, which combines a LiDAR scanner with advanced sensor fusion and processing capabilities (and built-in redundancy if a component fails).
However, while Audi is doing wonders with car driving technology, the regulatory process in the U.S. has shifted from guidelines at the federal level to state-specific requirements for self-driving cars. So, for now, the A8L is still classified as a Level 2 driverless car in the U.S. and will be delivered without the critical hardware and software needed to achieve Level 3 functionality. In Europe, however, Audi will first introduce the A8L in Germany as a true Level 3 driverless car with Traffic Jam Pilot technology.
Level 4 (High Automation)
The key difference between Level 3 and Level 4 automation is that Level 4 self-driving cars can intervene if an accident or system failure occurs. In this sense, these cars do not require human intervention in most cases. However, the driver still has the option to override manually.
Level 4 self-driving cars can operate in driverless mode. However, due to a lack of legislation and infrastructure development, Level 4 driverless cars can only be driven in restricted areas (usually on urban roads with a maximum average speed of 30 mph). This is called geofencing. As a result, most existing Level 4 self-driving cars are geared towards shared mobility.
- NAVYA, a French company, has built and sold Level 4 self-driving all-electric shuttles and cabs in the U.S. with top speeds of up to 55 mph.
- Alphabet’s Waymo has been testing driverless cars in Arizona for more than a year now, with more than 10 million miles of road testing, and recently launched a Level 4 driverless cab service with no safety driver in the vehicle.
- Canadian automotive supplier Magna has developed MAX4 self-driving technology that enables up to Level 4 self-driving capabilities in urban and highway environments. In addition, they are working with Lyft to provide high-tech kits that convert regular cars into self-driving models.
- Just a few months ago, Volvo and Baidu announced a strategic partnership to develop Level 4 electric vehicles for China’s self-driving cab market.
Level 5 (FulL Automation)
Level 5 self-driving cars do not require human attention, thus eliminating the need for “dynamic driving tasks.” Level 5 self-driving cars will not even have a steering wheel or accelerator/brake pedal. They will be geo-fence-free, able to go anywhere, and perform any maneuver that an experienced human driver can perform. Fully self-driving cars are being tested in several pilot areas around the world but are not yet available to the public. It will be several years before this service is available to the public. But imagine getting in your car, saying “take me to work,” and letting the car take care of the rest while you touch up your speech, watch a show on Netflix, or fix your hair – it’s fantastic.