Understanding the Five Levels of Autonomous Driving

The need to define what constitutes an autonomous vehicle defined the autonomous driving community of the early 2000s. At that time, diverse autonomous technologies were being touted as the Holy Grail to hacking driverless cars. But most of these prototypes still required some level of input from passengers within the vehicle. what are those autonomous driving levels?

To put the arguments about what autonomous driving consists of, the Society of Automotive Engineers came up with the five levels of autonomous driving in 2014. These levels were to serve as a reference point for everyone interested in sizing up self-driving cars and the abilities or features they’re designed with.

The Five Levels of Autonomous Driving

As you have probably guessed, Level 0 is assigned to the passenger-driven vehicle you learnt how to drive with. These vehicles are your everyday automobiles that require a driver to steer the vehicle to specific definitions. Thus, level 0 vehicles have no self-driving features and in this case, automatic transmission features don’t count. With an automatic transmission, the driver is still required to steer the vehicle to handle navigation.


Level 1: Driver Assisted Vehicles

The next level includes vehicles that assist the driver with navigating space in one way or another. Although at this level the major responsibility of steering the vehicle is handled by the driver, a few automated features apply. Diverse examples that define what automated features mean to exist and here the major ones will be provided:

  • Cruise Control Features – You have probably used the cruise control button in your vehicle to ease the pressure on your foot when going on long-distance trips. Cruise control automates the speeding process which in turn means you allow the vehicle to move at a pace you set.
  • Park Assist Features – Although park assisting features do not control any aspects of the driving process, the automated assistance it provides ensures you drive safely. Park assistance features include the beeping sound you hear when you get close to an obstacle, the parking cameras, and distance measurements in some vehicles. Today, park assist features have been integrated into vehicles from 2010 to date. This means your vehicle is probably a Level 1 autonomous driving automobile.
  • Brake Assist Features – Modern brake systems are equipped with brake assisting features that handle diverse functions. One of its more important functions is to control the force transfer from applying the brakes and how quickly or slowly the car stops or reduces its speed. In situations where excessive force is applied, the brake assist reduces the pressure to ensure the vehicle does not try to stop abruptly. The brake assist feature also supports the suspension system when driving through dirt roads or rough terrains.
  • Steering Assist Features – These features ensure you do not steer the wheels in such a way that it affects your safety or damage components within the vehicle.

Level 2: Partial Automation

A vehicle equipped with partially automated driving features takes things to the next level by allowing the vehicle to handle some important driving functions. These functions cut across steering the wheels, applying the brake pedals, and accelerating to cover distances. The outline below highlight the assistance you get from a partially automated level 2 vehicle:

  • Acceleration Assist Features – These features are more advanced than the cruised control features many drivers are used to. Level 2 acceleration assist actually controls speed autonomously and works with the brakes and distance sensors to ensure collision does not occur. With Level 2 acceleration assist you do not have to consistently hover your feet around the brake pedal but you’re required to keep your hands on the steering wheel.
  • Brake Assist Features – Level 2 assists can take control of the brake application process due to the use of distance and obstacle sensors. In this case, you will have to actively agree before some control can be seeded to your vehicle’s control system.
  • Steering Assist Features – The Steering assistance you get from a level 2 automated driving process supports the centering of the vehicle, keeping to your driving lane, and supports acceleration stability. This combined with parking assistant, and the other features listed here ensure you can automate the process when going on long-distance journeys.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

The next level of automation truly allows your seat back, relax, and let the vehicle handle the heavy lifting. These vehicles are also known as ‘eyes-off’ automobiles as you no longer need to put your hands on the wheel or be prepared to apply the brakes in certain situations. The only catch with Level 3 automation is the road must be in ideal condition before you can give the vehicle so much leeway. The ideal condition refers to the quality of the road and the traffic situation around you. The features of conditional automation vehicles include:

  • Steering Assist –Conditional automation makes use of sensors, positional and automated technologies to ensure you do not have to worry about steering the wheels or navigating through turns. This is why it is called ‘eyes-off’ because you no longer have to concentrate on supporting the vehicles driving abilities.
  • Speed Assist – For level 3 automated vehicles, excellent speed automation has been achieved. You are generally not required to intervene as long as the vehicle is moving at less than 60km/hr. Thus when driving within streets or community roads with speed limits below 60km/hr., you will have no problem with automating the driving process.
  • Brake and Parking Assist – Level 3 automation also comes with comprehensive brake and parking automation which requires little or no input from the driver. The steering, brake, and speed automation features of Level 3 are why many say vehicles with these features have achieved true automation.

Level 4: High Automation

At the 4th level of automation, an automobile is able to make accurate decisions regardless of the quality of the road. Level 4 vehicles also support driving at higher speeds without worrying about losing control of the vehicle. Unlike level 3, these vehicles take eye-off to the next level through precise automation that provides you with the freedom to do other things while in the vehicle. The features of level 4 automation include:

  • Road Monitoring Features – Asides the brake, steering, and acceleration assistance these vehicles provide, their ability to map out road networks makes capable of adapting to different conditions. These vehicles are capable of monitoring bumps, rough edges, and obstacles on the road and taking decisions when by-passing them. Despite their high-level of automation, it is still recommended to use level 4 vehicles only on roads in excellent condition.
  • Traffic Navigation Features – The ability to maneuver through obstacles also makes navigating traffic possible for level 4 autonomous cars. With these vehicles, you can let the car lead through dynamic driving situations without having to worry about the end result. Many level 4 autonomous vehicles make use of Lidar technology, and other high-level scanners to ensure the driving process is safe.
  • Artificial Intelligence Features – The 3-dimensional data collected through Lidar solutions and data from sensors are analyzed in real-time to assist level 4 vehicles with decision-making. Thus, AI and machine learning are integral parts of autonomously driven vehicles within level 4’s category.

Level 5: Full Automation

When you think of the self-driven cars of the future, Level 5 vehicles are probably what you envision. Level 5 cars are capable of accomplishing every driving mission without any human input. This includes reversing, parking, coming out of a parking lot, navigating dynamic traffic, etc. With a level 5 automated vehicle, you can actually sleep while the vehicle takes you from point A to B. you can also summon your vehicle from parking lots without having to find it. The features of Level 5 automated vehicles include the following:

  • Artificial Intelligence – Level 5 vehicles will be steeped in AI, machine learning, and edge computing to ensure it processes data in real-time. There must be no data transfer lags, communication issues or it would prove disastrous. Thus, level 5 automation is expected to leverage both edge and cloud computing, 5G networks, and IoT to deliver a comprehensive and safe driving process.


These are the five levels of automation and to ensure you get the picture, here is a breakdown using available examples. Level 0 vehicles refer to the 2004 Toyota camera with no automated features to ease the driving process. The 2018 Nissan Sentra is a Level 1 automated vehicle as it provides you with assisted services to ease your driving activities. For Level 2, the 2019 Volvo S60 offers auto-piloting features that you can trigger to automate steering, accelerating, and braking processes. Level 3 is the Tesla Model T while Waymo’s ongoing projects define level 4 automated vehicles. Level 5 is still out-of-reach but Audi is making some large strides to deliver full automation to the market.

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