The five levels of autonomous driving

Mercedes-Benz E-class is one of the most hi-tech cars on the road... but it's still only Level-2-automated.
DAMIEN O'CARROLL/STUFF

Mercedes-Benz E-class is one of the most hi-tech cars on the road... but it's still only Level-2-automated.

While cars like the Tesla Model X and Mercedes-Benz E-class are very hi-tech, they are still quite a way off being truly autonomous.

Three years ago the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) released an international standard that defines the six levels of driving automation that has been adopted by governments around the world. Level 0 is almost completely unassisted, just like most cars on the road today. Today we take a look at the five remaining levels of autonomous driving.

Level 1: Driver assistance

Level 1: Subaru Impreza helps with steering, throttle and braking, but driver has to be in control at all times.
DAMIEN O'CARROLL/STUFF

Level 1: Subaru Impreza helps with steering, throttle and braking, but driver has to be in control at all times.

While Level 0 is unassisted, it does include some warning systems like blind-spot monitoring and forward collision warnings, but Level 1 takes that a step further.

Vehicles in this level can handle the steering to a limited degree, as well as the throttle and brakes, but not in all circumstances, and the driver has to be ready to take over if necessary. That means the driver must remain aware of what the car is doing at all times. Most modern cars with radar cruise control and higher level lane keep assist systems fall into this category.

2: Partial assistance

Level 2: Tesla Model S can monitor surroundings, but driver must still be available to take over.
DAMIEN O'CARROLL/STUFF

Level 2: Tesla Model S can monitor surroundings, but driver must still be available to take over.

The car can handle steering, braking and throttle, but immediately lets the driver take over if they want and alerts the driver to take over when the car doesn't know what to do. While the car can monitor its surroundings and other traffic, the driver is still ultimately responsible, as well as needing to monitor the weather and road conditions and be ready to take over if necessary.

The Mercedes-Benz E-class, BMW 5 and 7-series and Tesla Model S and Model X are all all Level 2 cars.

3: Conditional assistance

Level 3: new Audi A8 can self-drive in some situations, but driver must still be able to intervene.
SUPPLIED

Level 3: new Audi A8 can self-drive in some situations, but driver must still be able to intervene.

The car monitors surroundings and takes care of all steering, braking and throttle inputs in certain environments, such as slow traffic and motorways. The car is also capable of making some decisions on its own, such as changing lanes if it is safe to do so. However, the driver must always be ready to intervene if the car requests.

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Some consider Tesla's system to be closer to Level 3, but in reality it is more like Level 2.5. Audi's new A8 - that will debut early next year - will be the first car in New Zealand to have Level 3 capabilities.

4: High automation

Level 4: Volvo's XC90 Uber can handle many driving scenarios alone, but might need human help in extreme conditions.
SUPPLIED

Level 4: Volvo's XC90 Uber can handle many driving scenarios alone, but might need human help in extreme conditions.

The car handles steering, braking and throttle, as well as monitoring the surroundings and other traffic in a much wider range of environments, conditions and speeds.

However, unusual situations and extreme conditions, such as severe weather, will still require the driver to take over. The driver is also responsible for switching on the automatic driving functions, but after that the car can handle most things it will come across in ordinary conditions, such as your daily commute to work.

5: Full automation

Level 5: car will do it all and probably won't even need a steering wheel.
SUPPLIED

Level 5: car will do it all and probably won't even need a steering wheel.

This is the big one. The driver only has to set the destination and start the car, the technology handles everything else. Level 5 cars probably won't even require steering wheels, as the on-board sensors and computers, combined with communication around roadside infrastructure and other cars, will be capable of doing all the driving.

While we are almost up to Level 3, the jumps required for the next two are fairly big, so we won't be seeing them terribly soon. But they are most certainly coming.

 - Stuff

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