Levels of automation

Here's what you need to know about levels 0-5. The biggest difference is that, starting at Level 3, the automated driving system becomes able to monitor the driving environment.

Level 0: This one is pretty basic. The driver (human) controls it all: steering, brakes, throttle, power. It's what you've been doing all along.

Level 1: This driver-assistance level means that most functions are still controlled by the driver, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the car.

Level 2: In level 2, at least one driver assistance system of "both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment" is automated, like cruise control and lane-centering. It means that the "driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time," according to the SAE. The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle, however.

Level 3: Drivers are still necessary in level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift "safety-critical functions" to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. It means that the driver is still present and will intervene if necessary, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way it does for the previous levels.

Level 4: This is what is meant by "fully autonomous." Level 4 vehicles are "designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip." However, it's important to note that this is limited to the "operational design domain (ODD)" of the vehicle—meaning it does not cover every driving scenario.

Level 5: This refers to a fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle's performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario—including extreme environments like dirt roads that are unlikely to be navigated by driverless vehicles in the near future.

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