There are officially 5 levels of automation, with an added Level 0 for non-automated vehicles, all established by The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Levels 1 and 2 have existed for a while now and technology for Level 3 is improving every year.
If you see a vehicle being advertised with a particular level of autonomy you might not know exactly what that means, so in this article, we've broken down each level.
Level 0 – No Automation
This describes the standard car which has no extra technology that makes the vehicle alter its driving behaviour by itself.
Level 1 – Driver Assistance
Level 1 is the most basic form of automation. This is when technology controls one aspect of the driving experience, which is usually through either cruise control or lane-keep assist. Level 1 autonomy was first seen in the late 1990s with Mercedes-Benz. The vast majority of new cars sold today will come with this level of tech.
Level 2 – Partial Automation
Level 2 is when two or more aspects of the driving experience are controlled by technology and is the standard that a lot of high-end vehicles on the market are operating at today. Having multiple automated functions allows the car to change lanes, adjust speed and park all by itself. Despite how intelligent some of this technology might feel, the driver must still have their hands on the wheel throughout any of these processes.
You may be aware of Tesla's famous autopilot system - this is officially at Level 2 standard.
Level 3 – Conditional Automation
At this stage, the technology makes nearly all of the decisions on the road. Technologically this is a big jump as the vehicle can effectively detect the environment around them and drive by themselves in certain situations. The driver still needs to be present and available so they can override any potential incorrect decisions, although they can have their eyes off the road and their hands off the steering wheel for periods of time.
Level 3 automation is improving all of the time and extensive research is being conducted to make these cars as safe and reliable as possible. Vehicle's with this intelligence are just beginning to surface but issues surrounding safety and legislation are what's holding this technology back at the moment.
Level 4 – High Automation
This level of automation doesn’t require any human interaction in most circumstances. They’ll be limited to certain areas (geofencing) where speed limits are low and the roads are easy to read. These vehicles lend themselves to ride-sharing taxi services in city areas. Current restrictive regulations and continued testing of these cars are what’s stopping this type of technology from being more widely used.
Level 5 – Full Automation
This is the category for fully driverless cars. No assistance is needed from humans at all and so there is no need for a steering wheel or pedals. These vehicles, in theory, can perform anything that a standard driver could do. The intelligence and sophistication of the computers running these cars will mean that they'll be able to drive anywhere - even locations that don't have carefully mapped out road markings.
Where are the driverless cars?
Driverless cars have been promised for many years now and their development has hit many stumbling blocks over this time. Even though it may be taking longer than expected, there are still many manufacturers investing a lot of time and resources into pushing this technology along. This decade could see some more breakthroughs, so keep your eyes peeled for those automation levels!