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Design & Tech: Levels of autonomy explained

Full circle: Volvo imagined the possibilities of a Level Five autonomous vehicle with its 360c Concept.

Self-driving cars are categorised into six levels of automation. Here’s what it all means...

30 Jan 2019

WHAT was once considered a pipe dream has been all but proven a reality by the engineering wizards of today. Yep, autonomous cars are coming whether we like it or not.
 
There was once a time when sportscar proponents and driving traditionalists alike would meet in little rooms and chant things like “it’ll never happen here” and “the ‘safetycrats’ are trying to take our freedom!”; in hindsight, we must have looked like Grandpa Simpson throwing gestures of disapproval at the sky.

Now that self-driving vehicle tech is reaching its adolescence, road organisations and regulatory bodies across the globe are hard at work devising how exactly the tech can be placed neatly into our complex and stringent road and transport systems.
 
This means rules, laws, codes of ethics, testing procedures and well ... you name it. This is a new frontier, after all, and without strong protocol it could quickly turn Tatas up.
 
The Society of Automotive Engineers – or SAE for short – took an important step in categorising autonomous cars with six levels ranging from zero to five, from your traditional manual car to vehicles with fully autonomous capability.
 
Here are the six levels of autonomy and what they mean.
 
LEVEL ZERO: IT’S ALL YOU, CHIEF
 
The majority of cars on the road today fit into this category, meaning all aspects of driving are controlled by the person behind the wheel. If you own a level zero car, savour it, because they are being rapidly phased out.



No autonomy here: Cars like the 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 well-and-truly qualify as Level Zero autonomous vehicles.
 
LEVEL ONE: A LITTLE HELP
 
Level One is the lowest echelon of autonomy, and refers to vehicles with a single type of driver assistance, be it electronic control of the steering, braking, speed modulation, etcetera. A vehicle fits into Level One as long as it is equipped with just a single example of the aforementioned technology.
 
LEVEL TWO: YOU’RE BOTH IN CONTROL
 
The next level of autonomy is given to vehicles that can automatically steer and adjust speed, however the driver can override these technologies and remains in control at all times. For instance, a car would be considered a Level Two vehicle if it was equipped with “one or more driver assistance systems” like a self-parking feature as well as lane-holding assistance.
 
Most car-makers currently sell vehicles that fit into the Level Two category.
 
LEVEL THREE: ALMOST DRIVERLESS
 
It’s a big step moving up to Level Three. Vehicles in this category have the ability to drive autonomously in some scenarios, and can make decisions independently of the driver like to overtake slow-moving cars on the freeway. However, Level Three vehicles still need the human touch for when it is unable to make a decision and the automated system needs to be overridden.



Making it happen: American car-maker Tesla has been hard at work making autonomous driving a reality with its signature Autopilot technology.
 
LEVEL FOUR: JESUS, TAKE THE WHEEL
 
While a manual override is still available, Level Four autonomous vehicles are able to make decisions if things go pear shaped or if a system fails. In the majority of situations, the driver is not required, and the vehicle can be left to its own device.
 
In Level Four, the vehicle will notify the driver when conditions are safe, allowing the driver to manually put the car into an autonomous mode.
 
LEVEL FIVE: YOU’VE BEEN MADE REDUNDANT
 
The Level Five category imagines a vehicle that has much stronger environmental awareness than the other levels, and can transport cargo and/or people completely autonomously.
 
A Level Five vehicle does not feature conventional driving controls like a steering wheel or pedal box, and so a driver is not required.

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