The concept of autonomous cars has been around for over 80 years now, reaching its highs and lows. This past July, Elon Musk made a promise to produce a level 5 autonomous vehicle before the end of 2020. Will he be able to deliver on his promise?  And what does level 5, per se, mean when talking about vehicle autonomy?

Understanding the autonomous driving levels is important in order to be able to fully grasp the evolution of driverless cars and how they will change mobility as we know it. How much control are we giving up at each level? Join me in this post as I explore these questions.

What are the different autonomous driving levels?

As driving gets enhanced by various levels of technology, our cars become less and less dependant on human drivers. Based on the automated features, there are 6 levels of autonomy – from 0 (fully manual) to 5 (fully autonomous). Below is a breakdown:

Level 0

This is a fully manual level. The driver needs to be all eyes and ears and hands-on, in order to drive a vehicle. There might be some warning signals from the car, such as for the fuel level or battery, but it is up to the driver to ignore or to keep going. Usually, classic cars and other older vehicles fall under this category. And although there’re talks of modernizing classic vehicles, most still fully depend on their drivers.

Level 1

Level 1 cars offer some driving assistance, but the driver still needs to be hands-on all the time. The automated features come in the form of adaptive cruise control, which helps maintain a safe distance between vehicles applies breaks when the distance becomes too dangerous. Other features include lane keep assist and parking assistant. Most cars produced within the last 5 years have this level of automation. One example is the 2018 Toyota Corolla, equipped with different sensors to avoid pre-collision or lane deviation.

Level 2

In addition to the previous level features, level 2 cars can also do the steering. However, the driver still needs to be alert when to intervene. Tesla Full Self-Driving Autopilot system is one of the Level 2 vehicle examples. It is important to remember that even though the vehicle can adjust its speed, know when to change lanes, or when to stop, the driver still needs to keep their eyes on the road, to avoid any accidents. Tesla sometimes is treated as a level 3 or even 4 car, but remember that technically, it hasn’t reached that driverless level yet.

Level 3

At this point, the car knows how to monitor the environment, and the driver can relax a bit, maybe even read a book or answer messages on their phone. The “co-driver” will be in charge. This can be considered a conditional autonomy. The vehicle can’t be driver-independent in all circumstances, but only when traffic is sufficiently slow.

When the Japanese government announced in 2019 that it would allow level 3 autonomous cars in the streets, Honda took heed. The automaker promised a level 3 model before this year ends. Even though the pandemic has slowed the development, we are all curious to learn about Japan’s experience with level 3 cars on the road.

Level 4

By this level, your car will already be highly automated. Your intervention will be minimal, limited to certain driving modes, or in difficult situations. Otherwise, you can expect to stay hands-off the steering wheel, eyes-off the road most of the time, and you can even watch a movie meanwhile.

As we move up the levels, it is harder to find car models that fully reflect high autonomy. In this case, one of the best representatives is Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. Waymo offers self-driving taxi service in Arizona, and during the last 5 years has been continuously increasing the autonomy features of its fleet. For example, currently, the autonomous taxis can freely drive on the road in Arizona. However, they are not yet prepared to drive in areas with harsh weather or rough road conditions.

Level 5

This is the ultimate level of full autonomy that tech companies and car manufacturers are aiming to achieve. If your car reaches this level, then it will know how to drive at different speeds, choose lanes, and respect traffic signs the same way or even better than you would (ideally, if nothing goes wrong!). A fully autonomous car in all drive modes and conditions is still not legally operating in the US market. However, continuous tests and improvements on existing models are in progress in order to reach level 5 soon.

The path to autonomy is complex, in every aspect of life. In the automotive sector, it is the same. Reaching autonomy presents challenges from the regulatory and safety perspective, which ultimately will require innovative hardware and software solutions.

How do you feel about riding a level 5 car one day? Are you ready to get hands-off and let your car make decisions for you?


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