Autonomous Driving Levels Explained

As autonomous vehicles (AV) are becoming more and more of a common sight on the public roads, it is useful to know that not all of them are created equal. And by that we don't mean they are made by different manufacturers, but that they are different types of AVs, depending on the level of autonomy they are capable of displaying.
Waymo autonomous driving vehicle 1 photo
Photo: Waymo
Traditionally, if we can use that term, an autonomous vehicle is an unmanned vehicle that is capable of operating without human input. Using a variety of techniques and technologies, AV cars can detect their surroundings, identify the best route to take, avoid obstacles and distinguish between objects.

Of course, as the technology behind this type of vehicle progresses, the initial path of development splits and several kinds of AVs are born.


This apparently uncalled for push to automate driving has behind it very sound reasons. According to the latest study on the subject, issued by auditing firm KPMG, there are several reasons why it would be preferable to have autonomous vehicles developed and adopted as soon as possible.

First, autonomous cars could help save at least one million lives each year, lost to car accidents. KPMG estimates that 90 to 95 percent of car crashes which occur on public roads each year are caused by human error. Once that factor is taken out of the equation, car crashes should diminish drastically, saving at the same time millions, if not billions of dollars in car repairs.

Secondly, AVs could help those who are unable to drive, like the elderly or physically impaired, move easier from place to place. AVs can also be used in remote areas where there is no public transport, or by those who don't have a car of their own.


There is no AV that is fully functional and operating on public roads at the moment. Several manufacturers are in the process of testing their technologies, including companies that are not necessarily directly involved in the car manufacturing process like Google, Apple or Uber.

From the ranks of established carmakers that are working on such technologies, most progress has been made by Ford, General Motors, and the Renault Nissan Alliance. Following closely are Daimler, Volkswagen, BMW, Honda, and Volvo.

The list, however, is practically unending and it includes several previously never-heard-of companies that bet all their money on AVs. Such startups say KPMG experts, are responsible for most of the $50 billion invested so far in this field over the last five years.


There are six autonomous vehicle levels that allow users to identify how much autonomy one vehicle has. The classification belongs to the SAE International and has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in November 2017.

LEVEL 0 - This level includes all the vehicles currently being sold in the world, meaning no automation. All the work is being done by the driver: steering, throttle, braking (a set of operations referred to as ST&B), monitoring the surroundings, navigating, use of turn signals, changing lanes, and turning. Cars equipped with technologies like blind spot and collision warnings are included in this category. The driver is responsible for all the other task required for driving.

LEVEL 1 – Vehicles included in this category can manage in certain circumstances ST&B operations. Hence they are capable of assisting the driver. The person behind the wheel, however, must pay attention at all times to intervene if needed. The driver is responsible for all the other task required for driving.

LEVEL 2 – Partial assistance vehicles can also handle ST&B but in a more permanent way. The technology allows the driver to step in if it thinks the situation ahead cannot be controlled automatically. There are at least two automatic functions, but he driver is still responsible for all the other task required for driving.

LEVEL 3 – Depending on conditions, the car can monitor its surroundings and handle ST&B. This type of autonomous systems is meant to be used primarily on highways. Human input is still required in emergency or unforeseen situations.

LEVEL 4 – The car itself can handle pretty much all tasks required for driving after being activated. There is no need for human input during the functioning of the system, being driverless in specific environments. Weather conditions, however, limit its use.

LEVEL 5 – The Holy Graal of the automotive industry, full automation means the driver becomes a mere passenger in a driverless taxi. Just punch in the desired destination and then read a book and play on the smartphone.

The cars currently on the market are Level 2, 3 at most. Several manufacturers have begun testing Level 4 technologies, but none has ventured so far yet as to go for a Level 5.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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