Autonomous driving tech: what are the different levels?

We keep on talking about autonomous vehicles but what are its different levels? Let’s look at em’ here


There are two phrases that are used to describe cars which can drive itself, which are autonomous vehicles, and self-driving cars. Either way, it is what it says, and the technology is no longer creeping into everyday passenger vehicles. Instead, there is almost an unstoppable move to introduce it to newer models.

To be precise, at this point of time autonomous driving technology is best defined by the individual technology that makes it whole. After the much-publicised accident in America where a pedestrian was killed by a self-driving SUV, perhaps it is best to list down the stages in which autonomous technology are categorised. This is done by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

Level 0 (Most cars in Malaysia)
First introduction: 1900-ish .. or in general since the first automobiles
Autonomous Level 0

If the vehicle has a steering wheel, gear knob of sorts, and throttle, and needs human input, it’s Level 0. Automatic transmission don’t count, the same goes for ‘beeps’ or visual warnings from, for example, Lane Departure Warning sensors. They count as Level 0 tech too because it only serves to warn the driver with zero influence on vehicle control. The same of a reverse camera/sensor.

Level 1 (A fair amount of cars on local roads)
First introduction: 2007
Autonomous Level 1

The Adaptive Cruise Control technology is a good way to define this category, where cameras and sensors may help driving speed and provide assisted braking. Note how both are on a single dimension – build speed with the throttle or decrease it via braking. Not having your hands on the steering will turn your day into a very bad one real quick.

Level 2 (Already on Malaysian roads, but in premium cars)
First introduction: 2014
Autonomous Level 2

Volvo’s Pilot Assist is a good example of Level 2 technology. It not only controls the throttle and/or brakes, it adds limited control of the steering too. Ever seen a car’s steering turning by itself trying to keep the vehicle within the lane? An increasing number of modern premium cars can do this (and the more much budget-friendly Hyundai Ioniq too!).

But as those who have driven cars with Level 2 autonomous tech can verify, you always need to be on your toes – in fact, keeping a finger on the steering wheel is the natural practise, not toes – and be ready to take control once the system reaches its threshold. This happens because road markings are not detected or sensors are obstructed, for example. Tesla’s Autopilot feature is Level 2, too.

Level 3 (Getting rare, for a reason)
First introduction: 2018
Autonomous Level 3

This is the stage where much more control is given to the car’s autonomous technology feature, but the driver still needs to be alert and take control when necessary. Level 3 cars may even drive around incidents or traffic jams, but human control must always be ready.

For this reason, some manufacturers like Volvo recognise that this may not be a good idea after all and would rather skip Level 3 altogether. Some, but not all. The new Audi A8 has the AI Traffic Jam pilot which can take over the driving task up to 60kph in nose-to-tail traffic. The driver may take their hands and foot totally off the steering and pedals; and the system – on top of monitoring situations outside the vehicle – also checks (using a camera) whether the driver is ready to take over if needed. If the driver’s eyes are closed for an extended time, he or she is prompted to retake control. If the driver doesn’t; or the traffic jam has cleared, or if the speed now exceeds 60kph, the system will slow the A8 to a total stop in its lane.

Level 4 (The near future)
First introduction: expect 2021
Autonomous Level 4

SAE guideline indicates that the car should be able to drive without human input even when a driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene. Because if there is no response, the car will be able to pull over and park at a safe spot. This is why some companies like Volvo prefer to go straight to Level 4, it’s just safer, and better defined.

The Renault Symbioz concept is claimed to offer Level 4 autonomy but that’s a few years away still. Partly because the complexity of the system becomes, urmm, complicated, and it also requires a lot of money (for sensors, cameras, LIDARs, redundancie systems, etc). By this time, it won’t be surprising if all Level 4 cars are electric vehicles; in fact it’ll be expected.

Level 5 – We’re into Hollywood sci-fi territory here 
First introduction: expect mid-2020s
Autonomous Level 5

Think the Lexus in Minority Report, or basically any sci-fi film or even comic where the driver is also the passenger. The travel starts with you telling the car of your destination and that is that. The car will do the rest; at this level, the car may even go through non-designated routes, such as off-road. Of course, this means that the ‘Look Mum, no hands’ phrase will turn to ‘Look Mum, no steering wheel.’ Manufacturer peek? Take a look at the Audi Aicon.

Ahmad Zulizwan
Author: Ahmad Zulizwan
Take it to the track, please.