Self-Driving Vehicles – The Five Levels of Automation

I recently saw a video of a drone. Unremarkable news, you may scoff. But this wasn’t just any drone. This was a rather large drone (as drones go). In fact, this particular model was a person carrying drone, complete with a central ‘pod’ just big enough to hold an adult human comfortably. “Finally!” I thought, “Here is the flying car I was promised by all those Hollywood films as a child!”. Alas, things were about to take a bizarre turn. The drone had no controls. No central steering wheel. No airplane-style ‘stick’ protruding from the floor. There wasn’t even so much as a sign on the wall stating “scream if you want to go faster” – how on earth do you control this thing?

self-driving vehiclesImage Source: Pxhere

That’s when the big reveal dropped. The drone was automated, flying a pre-planned route at a height and speed entered into the flight control system before the flight. At this point, I was out. No thanks. But that made me think – am I being too judgmental? After all, self-driving cars have been around for years now, and how many self-driving cars have crashed recently? Is automation safe? I dug a little deeper, and discovered that in California alone, 2018 saw 28 crashes involving self-driving vehicles (if you’ve been affected, speak to a car crash lawyer to make sure you’re covered in the evolving legal considerations around self-driving vehicles!).

And then I thought a little more … are there different levels of automation, allowing some level of interaction with the vehicle during sticky situations? The answer is yes.

The Five Levels of Automation

Level 0 – Zero Automation

The name can be misleading. Zero automation does not necessarily only cover pedal-powered go-karts and mountain bikes, but also modern cars with basic cruise control options (i.e. the driver selects a speed which is then maintained by the vehicle until told otherwise).

Level 1 – Adaptive Cruise Control

Level 1 automation includes any class of vehicle that offers cruise control with additional features such as lane keep assist and speed assist to help maintain a safe distance in traffic. This level of automation should only be thought of as a ‘nudge’ to drivers who may be off course or may be in danger.

Level 2 – Partial Autopilot

This level of automation can assist in taking over both speed and steering (ideal for commuters caught in a heavy traffic flow). However, the driver must have both hands on the wheel at all times.

Level 3 – Conditional Autopilot

At this level, drivers may let go of the steering wheel. However, the vehicle will only continue to drive itself if the road conditions remain within certain parameters – for example, automated city driving would most likely not be included under level 3.

Level 4 – High Level of Automation

This level requires very little input from the driver and would likely cover most driving scenarios, including the start-stop complexity of city driving and the much greater speeds of the open road. However, driver interaction may still be required under unforeseen circumstances.

Level 5 – Fully Automated (the Future)

The vehicle is fully automated. This would likely entail voice control or perhaps a touch screen. There would otherwise be no input from the vehicle’s occupants (i.e. there is no steering wheel/pedals).

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