You probably see a lot of news about autonomous cars and hear terms like “self-driving” or “fully autonomous” thrown around. You might even hear things like Level 2 or Level 4. Let’s help clear up the confusion. Coincidentally, there are five levels of automation defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

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So, here are the five levels of driving automation.

  1. Level 1: Sustained assistance. This is more than lane departure warnings or automatic emergency braking. (Those are technically level 0) To be level 1, a car has to be doing something that requires continual adaptation. Lane centering is an example. Cruise control is another. But only one at a time. If it can do both at the same time, you’re in the next level.
  2. Level 2: This one moves from assistance to automation. The car maintains cruising speed AND centers you in the lane. The driver is still always responsible though. It’s not a reliable enough system to operate the car unsupervised. If you’ve heard of autopilot or Hands-off driving, those are level 2.
  3. To qualify for level 3, the car should be able to sometimes drive itself without supervision. In limited conditions. A good example is traffic jam driving. The car can speed up and slow down as needed to keep moving. You may be able to take your hands off the wheel at this level. Though your eyes should stay on the road because the driver may be called upon at any moment to take over.
  4. Level 4 is actual autonomous driving. Within a defined region, say a neighborhood or an industrial campus, the car can drive itself without human intervention. If it meets conditions it can’t handle, it can safely stop driving. Basically you don’t need the human as a backup system anymore, though the car may not be able to drive in all conditions.
  5. Level 5. This is the Holy Grail. The car can drive reliably and safely anywhere a normal human could. It doesn’t need predefined regions or special conditions or even a steering wheel or brake pedal.

We have a long way to go to get to level 5, if we ever get there. But there are some tests being done at level 3 and 4. And level 2 has become an attainable feature on lots of car models.

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