top of page

Autonomous Vehicle Driving Levels - A Simple Guide

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

As children watching a sci-fi movie had always been a treat; when anyone used to say that by 2020, flying cars would be the new normal, it seemed unbelievable. Yet very fascinating! Most of us did want this to be true. Watching cars fly and operate on their own in the movies made everyone wonder, what if we had one too?

Sadly enough, we didn't get our flying cars by 2020 and seeing the current scenario; this dream seems far-fetched or rather very unrealistic. The everyday advancing automotive technology has successfully provided us with automatic vehicles, which have in-built intelligent ECU's to make them function smartly. Still, we don't have anything close to being called autonomous or that can drive on its own, let alone fly. Let's understand how far we are from driving our fully autonomous or self-operative vehicles.

Technically a self-driving vehicle will be a vehicle that can do almost everything on its own that our existing vehicles can do with a driver operating it. It can go anywhere it is asked to, follow instructions and follow rules normal humans would, while driving their cars. A technology so advanced that it can sense and analyse its environment to operate accordingly without any human intervention.

The cars that we have today are in no way near to operating in such a manner. Such vehicles may become a reality at some point, but it is bound to take some time, according to what we have today. The technology may be advancing really-really fast, but achieving such hi-tech evolution even in the next 10-15 years, seems like reality from another dimension. So far, we have somehow only managed to touch Level 4, but that too, not completely as defined by SAE J3016 standards. These levels clearly define what kind of technology in a vehicle will make it fall under which automation level. According to SAE J3016, there are six such levels,

Level 0 Automation

Since the time of the discovery of the automobile, every vehicle has fallen under this category. These never had any automation and were completely required to be operated by a human. Some systems such as ABS can be present, but that does not categorise as automation.

Level 1 Automation

This level of automation is very basic. It involves steering or braking, or accelerating assistance. Automation such as cruise control or adaptive cruise control, parking assistance with human assistance also falls under this level. Steering assistance features like lane-centring assistance or lane-following assistance qualify as Level 1 autonomy. However, the presence of all these features will qualify as Level 2 automation. Most vehicles today fall under this level.

Level 2 Automation

To qualify as Level 2 automated, a vehicle needs to have Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). The vehicle can simultaneously take care of its lateral movement with braking action. Multiple steering assistance features, lane-centring, and lane-following are all functions simultaneously. But, it still does not classify as a self-driving car, as a human is required to be present in the driver's seat to take control of the vehicle at all times. Examples:

Tesla- Autopilot General Motors -Cadillac (Super Cruise systems). Ford – BlueCruise

Level 3 Automation

So this is where some legitimate automation kicks in. Level 3 vehicles can sense their environment and are capable of making decisions based on their analyses. Their "environmental detection" capabilities enable them to make informed decisions. But the driver must remain alert and ready to control the system if it cannot execute the task. So the major disadvantage remains that though the vehicle is driving itself, the driver needs to be alert all the time. A sudden need to overtake the system for the vehicle can result in a potential road accident. The Volkswagen Audi A8 was supposedly in talks for many years to be the first Level 3 vehicle to run on roads. But, from recent reports, it has been clarified that Audi A8 did not get Level 3 automation technology due to global regulations.

Mercedes-Benz's Drive Pilot became the first Level 3 autonomous driving system approved for European public roads as an option on S-Class and EQS models starting May 17, 2022. This is only available for sale in Germany as of now.

Level 4 Automation

These are high-level automation vehicles that are way smarter than level 3. These can make logical decisions independently and do not require any human interference. These vehicles can operate in self-driving mode but with an option for manual override. Many level 4 vehicles like Navya in France, Waymo in Arizona, Magna MAX-4 in Canada, and Baidu Robo-taxi in China, are already functional. So, does it mean that level 4 automation is here? On a more serious note, all the above vehicles have functioned very well but in some specified regions only. Whereas, if we talk about the entire globe, these vehicles are incompatible with running on every road out there.

Level 5 Automation

This kind of automation will make it possible for the vehicle to take control of all the driving actions without any interference from the human seated inside. These vehicles will not have manual controls such as steering wheel, brake, or acceleration pedals. Such vehicles will be able to do everything independently, and only human interference will be to set the desired destination.

What's holding automation back?

There is no doubt that organisations are putting in a lot of time, money, and research to make these technical advancements possible. But no matter how much time and energy they might invest into it, the harsh reality is that most countries are not ready for such advanced vehicles to run on their roads. The reasons are many, but to highlight a few; first is always going to be

Safety concerns: All this technology is good, straight out of a sci-fi movie, but who would guarantee the safety aspects. Can one be purely dependent on a machine to make logical decisions for their lives? And will logical decisions do it all? Maybe automatic vehicles can make decisions to keep you safe, but what if it has to choose between you and some other life? Will it be able to save you still? There are many case studies where automatic vehicle manufacturers layout proof supporting their vehicles are incredibly safe. But are they suitable to be out there on the roads with super dense traffic or very unpredictable ones? This is like making people believe in the safety of being inside automatic elevators or stepping onto automatic escalators. But those did not involve very high risks towards one's life. Being inside a vehicle you have absolutely no control over, and that too on roads with other people on them could result in something unfortunate.

Rules, regulation and responsibility: To trust such vehicles completely, one needs to understand the technology used in such machinery and then develop faith. The concerns for the safety of people inside the vehicle and on the roads are preeminent. So, keeping that in mind, every country follows different guidelines only to allow specific technology on their roads. Like, maybe Europe is ready for Level 4 already, but the U.S. might not be. And there must be countries that are still struggling to keep their level 2 vehicles under check for any uncertainties. The automation tech giants cannot overlook these regulations. Also, when it comes to safety, the primary question remains, who will be held responsible if anything goes wrong? Will it be the responsibility of the person who owns it or the company that manufactured the machine and made you believe that it will keep you safe? For instance, who would be liable if accidents were to occur involving autonomous cars? How would insurance companies handle those claims? Who will take financial responsibility? Above all, who will decide whose life is more valuable than whose? And to talk about the kind of digital security these vehicles will offer, we really have nothing. It will be really important to ensure that there are no cyber threats in these cases. Guarding the autonomous software is one primary concern. There is no point putting your life in the hands of a machine that cannot keep you safe in this digital world.

Cost to the user: If anyhow, all these concerns are taken care of, and finally, someday we manage to see such cars out for sale in the market for common people, what will it cost? Even today, vehicles that have some advanced features cost a fortune. And the technology that is involved in converting a regular automobile into an intelligent, self-driving machine is very high-tech and expensive. They use combinations of technologically advanced sensors, RADARS, LIDARS, multiple cameras, ultrasonics, IMUs, embedded software and much more, and none of these is cheap. Using all this equipment may deliver the vehicle that is the one you dreamt for, but for sure, it will also be something that an ordinary person would only be able to afford in his dreams. So, one can expect that automatic self-driving cars might start surfacing in another decade or so but may not be able to get their flying cars until much longer.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page