How does the spectrum from driver-assisted to fully-autonomous look like?
Level 1 - Driver Assistance
Level 1 autonomy is the most common technology available. It refers to systems that allow the car and the person driving it to share control of the vehicle. Adaptive cruise control will keep a safe distance between you and the car ahead by automatically apply braking when traffic slows, and resume speed when traffic clears. Lane keep assist will push you back into the lane should you veer off a bit. These systems will assist drivers but still require the driver to be in control. Another good example of this level is the parking assistance function: The driver controls the speed of the vehicle while the car takes care of the steering.
Level 2 - Partial Automation
Level 2 vehicles have internal systems that basically control all aspects of driving - steering, accelerating, braking. However, humans must be able to intervene if any part of the system fails. This level is also known as "hands-off." The driver only has to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times for legal reasons; technically, this would not be necessary. Tesla Autopilot, Volvo Pilot Assist, Audi Traffic Jam Assist are some examples of Level 2 autonomous capabilities. They can be classified as Level 2 because they automatically help with stop-and-go traffic by maintaining the distance between you and the vehicle in front of you, while also providing steering assist by centering the car within the lane.
Level 3 - Conditional Automation
At this level, drivers can take their eyes off the road. A passenger still has to sit behind the wheel, but is not expected to be aware of everything at all times. So one can talk on the phone or even watch a movie. Nevertheless, it must be possible to take over control at short notice, which presents some difficulties, especially of legal and ethical nature. If it is an imminently dangerous situation that the algorithm cannot handle, the driver may not have enough time to fully assess the situation. The introduction of the "Traffic Jam Pilot" function for the Audi A8 in the USA also failed due to the complicated legal framework. With this function, autonomous driving is restricted to slow speeds (up to 60 km/h, primarily stop-and-go traffic) and to routes where a physical barrier separates the vehicle from oncoming traffic.
Level 4 - High Automation
Level 4 is considered to be fully autonomous driving, although a human driver can still request control, and the car has a cockpit. In level 4, the car handles the majority of driving situations independently. The technology is developed to the point that a car can handle highly complex urban driving situations, such as the sudden appearance of construction sites and traffic jams, without any driver intervention.
The driver, however, must remain fit to drive and capable of taking over control if needed. If the driver ignores multiple warning signals, the car will move into safe conditions, for example by pulling over.
Until legislation and infrastructure evolves, automated cars can only operate in limited area, such as urban environments where top speeds reach an average of 50 km/h .
This explains why the majority of Level 4 vehicles in existence are geared toward ridesharing. For example:
- Alphabet's Waymo unveiled a Level 4 self-driving taxi service in Phoenix (October 2020) and San Francisco (September 2021), where they had been testing driverless cars for millions of miles on public roads and billions more in simulations.
- Volkswagen announced that the ID Buzz, its electric, autonomy-intended minibus, will be rolling out as a "robo-shuttle" to provide accessible ride-sharing solutions in cities thanks to Level 4 self-driving technology by 2025.
- NAVYA, a French company, is already building and selling Level 4 shuttles and cabs in the U.S. that run fully on electric power and can reach a top speed of 55 mph (Source: synopsys)
Level 5 - Full Automation
Welcome to the future. This level is the high goal, where humans are no longer envisaged in the driver’s seat. The perspective changes from driver to passenger. The first Level 5 vehicles are already on the road - but they are not transporting people, they are transporting food. For example, Nuro, a startup founded by two former Google engineers, has teamed up with Krogers, the largest grocery supermarket chain in the U.S., to test small vehicles that transport food over short distances.
Although many of the technological components already exist for an artificially intelligent car, due to regulations and legal battles, Level 5 vehicles are probably still many years away. Until then, we’ll have to settle for partial automation.
Written by: Lorenzo Federici