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The Levels of Vehicle Automation

Updated: Apr 8

Forecasters predict that close to 10 million autonomous vehicles will be on the road by 2025. As self-driving vehicles leave the pages of science fiction and become a part of our reality, we must understand our own roles as we transition from drivers to passengers. Autonomous vehicle technology still has many obstacles to clear before we can fully become passengers on the road. Even in the early stages of AV technology, however, we must agree upon certain standards in order to ease the transition and to develop a common language surrounding self-driving vehicles. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has developed a classification system that defines the degrees of vehicle autonomy. The following provides a brief overview of Levels 0 through 5.


Level 0: Zero Automation


Nearly all vehicles on the road today are at this baseline level. Although there may be systems in place to aid drivers at this level (for instance, a back-up camera), all driving activities are manual and none of these features are considered automation.

Level 1: Driver Assistance


This is the first level of true automation. At this level, a single dynamic activity is automated, such as steering or acceleration. One example of a Level 1 automated feature is adaptive cruise control, in which a vehicle can independently maintain a stable distance behind the vehicle in front of it while the driver is still responsible for steering and braking.

Level 2: Partial Driving Automation


At this level, ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems) solutions are introduced. In specific circumstances, the vehicle can take control of both steering and acceleration. While these added features alleviate many of the driver’s responsibilities, this is still not full vehicle automation as a human driver is always required to stay alert and prepared to override the automation if necessary.

Level 3: Conditional Driving Automation


Vehicles at this level have environmental detection and can make decisions on their own accord. A vehicle at this level might make the independent decision to pass another vehicle on the road. Human alertness and potential override are still required at this level. Drivers may not notice much of a difference between a Level 2 vehicle and a Level 3 vehicle. Even so, the technology is significantly more advanced at Level 3, as vehicles are essentially able to “think for themselves” in certain situations.

Level 4: High Driving Automation


At Level 4, human intervention is not required in most circumstances. Vehicles at this level are considered truly autonomous, yet they can only function as such in specific areas such as urban environments. At this level the vehicle has systems in place that allow it to self-correct in the event of a system failure, and human override is generally not required. Discussions of autonomous ridesharing capabilities are usually referring to this level of automation.

Level 5: Full Driving Automation


Level 5 autonomous vehicles no longer require any sort of human supervision and carry out all driving tasks on their own, whether a passenger is present or not. A vehicle at this level can operate in any environment and can go anywhere a human driver could go. Level 5 vehicles aren’t forecasted to make their road debut for at least a couple more years (though Tesla has boldly claimed that they will have Level 5 technology ready by the end of 2021), but we are clearly headed in the direction of full automation.

At its lower levels, self-driving technology is already changing the game for both drivers and fleet managers. As vehicle automation continues to expand and advance, it is important to your vehicle’s degree of automation. SAE’s Levels of Automation provide a good framework for understanding a vehicle’s capabilities. While understanding these levels can help you to classify your own vehicles, focusing too much on these rules can be distracting for those still wrapping their heads around the technology. Our recommendation is to always assess the specifics of your own situation and ask yourself this simple question: Are you the driver, or are you a passenger?

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