Levels of Autonomous Driving: A Beginner’s Guide

By now, unless you have been living in a cave, you must have heard of autonomous driving or self-driving cars. They are the coolest, most debated offerings ever, but there’s much more to the general term “self-driving cars”. How much involvement does the driver need to in the driving task, can you doze off or take a nap while letting the system take full control of the vehicle, and what can the system do and what can’t it do? These are all important questions, and if you’re at all interested in using a self-driving taxi service or owning an autonomous vehicle, you will need to understand the difference between different levels of autonomous driving. 

The Different Levels of Autonomous Driving

Levels of Automated Driving

Level 1 – Driver Assistance: While technically Level 0 means no automated capabilities at all, Level 1 is the lowest level of automation and technically does not qualify as “automated driving”, but only “driver assistance” features. These driver assistance include adaptive cruise control. Adaptive cruise control is a feature that better makes sure your vehicle maintains a safe distance from the car in front. This doesn’t qualify as automated driving, since the driver is still required to actively monitor all other aspects of driving such as steering and braking. 

Level 2 – Partial Automation: Here we are moving into true automated driving. The vehicle can handle steering, accelerating, braking, lane-centering, and even lane changes, but the driver must keep their hands on the steering wheels and actively remain in control at all times. In real life, it is reported that in many incidents, this Level 2 system can still allow the car to lurch within its lane while driving straight and toward the outer line during lane swaps. 

Level 3 – Conditional Automation: Level 3 automated systems like Mercedes’ Drive Pilot can detect and evaluate real-time environmental conditions, including weather and road conditions, and can make informed decisions accordingly, such as changing lanes to pass a slower vehicle. But they can only operate properly when driving on the highways, and when certain conditions are met, thus the name “conditional automation”. And the driver still needs to remain alert at all times to readily take over the system upon its request, in case the road ahead is unsuitable for it to operate or some less-than-ideal conditions make it unable to take care of the driving.

levels of autonomous driving
At the moment, automated cars still need the driver to stay awake and alert. Source: Motor1.com

Level 4 – High Automation: High automation means almost full autonomy, that is you need not stay alert at all times. You can, say, doze off for a while or immerse yourself in a book, but for Level 4 automation to work, you must be within a geofenced or otherwise designated area. This area must have the required infrastructure and conditions, and must be pre-approved by the system, usually an urban environment where top speeds reach an average of 30mph. As such, at the moment, there are a few Level 4 vehicles but the applications for all of them are in ridesharing. 

The 4 is superior to Level in that Level 4 vehicles can intervene if things go wrong or there is a system failure, which means human input is not required in most circumstances. However, you can still choose to manually override the system.

If you are interested in the status quo of Level 4 self-driving vehicles, you can dive deeper into the projects below:

  • Just a few months ago, Volvo and Baidu announced a strategic partnership to tap into the booming robotaxi market in China. They will conduct joint research and development for series production of Level 4 electric vehicles.
  • Canadian automotive supplier Magna has developed Level 4 technology called MAX4 to enable autonomous driving on the highways as well as on city roads. Magna is collaborating with Lyft to make high-tech kits that can upgrade existing vehicles to Level 4 cars. 
  • The French designer of electric cars and self-driving vehicles NAVYA is already making and selling Level 4 full- electric shuttles and cabs in the United States, which can drive at up to 55 mph.
  • Alphabet’s Waymo has been testing Level 5 fully autonomous cars with no driver onboard for more than a year now, and they recently introduced a Level 4 self-driving taxi service in Arizona.

Level 5 – Full Automation: Full autonomy means the vehicle can drive itself anywhere, any time, totally free from the limit of geofencing, without the need for the driver to be in the car, so it’s understandable that they won’t even have steering wheels or acceleration/braking pedals. At the moment, Level 5 cars are undergoing testing, but it will take a while before we’ll see the very first fully automated cars on public roads.


How Far Along We Are On The Road To 100% Self-Driving Cars

Currently, self-driving cars sold in the United States are limited to Level 2 ADAS, including the hands-on Hyundai Highway Driving Assist and the hands-free Ford Blue Cruise, and more recently General Motors’ Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot. . 

Currently, as with all other self-driving technologies available in the United States, both General Motors’ Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot stop short and only qualify as Level 2 ADAS, which are partially automated systems. These partial self-driving systems require the driver to actively keep an eye on the vehicle’s surroundings and road conditions, and monitor the system to make sure it is working properly. Level 2 systems can make a few jobs less stressful for drivers, including braking and accelerating, lane-centering, and lane changes, given that the drivers don’t take their eyes off the road. 

Level 3 ADAS Development – The Status Quo

Audi was actually first to develop Level 3 ADAS, but it had to cancel  its Traffic Jam Pilot system because it couldn’t get regulatory approval by the US government. Recently, Audi introduced the next generation of their flagship sedan Audi A8, the world’s first Level 3 vehicle put in series production, to be followed by the 2019 Audi A8L. It features the earlier Traffic Jam Pilot, which employs a lidar scanner with advanced sensor fusion and processing power, and built-in redundancies for extra safety should a component fail.

However, when the A8 and A8L hit the market, the regulatory process for self-driving vehicles in the United States shifted from federal guidance to state-by-state mandates. So the A8L is yet to be classified as a Level 3 but stops short at Level 2. It is now sold without key hardware and software required to operate Level 3 capabilities. Fortunately for Audi fans in Europe, Audi will roll out the full Level 3 Audi A8L with Traffic Jam Pilot, with Germany being the first market. 

Honda also launched a new Level 3 system in its Legend sedan, however it’s available in limited quantities in Japan only for now. 


Mercedes’ Level 3 Drive Pilot & Level 4 Intelligent Park Pilot

Soon, Mercedes-Benz will debut its Drive Pilot with the redesigned 2021 S-Class and new 2022 EQS flagship sedans, initially on German highways. Drive Pilot is developed for the US market, but the U.S. regulators have not yet approved Level 3 ADAS.

In the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan, Drive Pilot can automatically handle the driving while the driver is not paying attention, including changing lanes, lane-centering, acceleration, passing a slower car and braking. You just have to stay awake to take over should the system notify you. One major limitation of the Drive Pilot is under the current legal autonomous driving speed in Germany, it’s only allowed to drive at a maximum speed of 37 mph or 60 km/h. 

The recent 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class luxury sedan is packed with state-of-the-art technology, including the Level 3 Drive Pilot and its cousin, the Level 4 Intelligent Park Pilot. Like other recent Mercedes models, the 2021 S-Class comes with the standard Driver Assistance Package, but the list of ADAS boasts major improvements regarding operational speeds, functionality and sensitivity.

The S-Class comes with a Level 4 high-automation valet parking function—the Intelligent Park Pilot. It builds on its cousin, the Drive Pilot, and can be activated later. It is designed to allow the vehicle to park itself in parking spaces properly outfitted with the required infrastructure, without the need for the driver to be monitoring nearby at all.

At the command of the driver via a smartphone app, the S-Class can autonomously park itself without the driver being within sight and the same happens when the car is summoned again. What makes Intelligent Park Pilot superior to existing similar technology is that the driver doesn’t have to standby for monitoring as the car makes its way in and out of the parking slot.

The Future of Autonomous Driving Technology

While the future of Level 3 vehicles is promising, with exciting news on the development of Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles in sight, the automotive industry still needs to face a few speed bumps first before mainstream production of autonomous cars can see healthy increases. While we don’t lack technological capability, the problem lies in public concerns over digital security, that is whether the automakers can guard against attacks against automotive software. 

The Ponemon Institute recently published a report titled “Securing the Connected Car: A Study of Automotive Industry Cybersecurity Practices”. This is a survey of 593 security practitioners, product development professionals, and engineers. More than two thirds of the participants voiced the need for better cybersecurity before they can accept self-driving cars.