Five levels to autonomy

The development stages up to the autonomous vehicle are divided into five levels. What does this classification look like and how are the individual levels characterized?

From driver to passenger

Everyone is talking about autonomous driving – numerous projects are underway worldwide, rosy scenarios of the future are being painted. But when will autonomous driving actually arrive? When will we sit behind the wheel reading the newspaper because the car will do the rest? And will there even be a steering wheel in the vehicles of the future?

The question of when autonomous driving will actually become reality is not a simple one to answer. Autonomous driving is not about going from 0 to 100, i.e. from no support functions to the autonomous vehicle. It is rather a step-by-step development towards automation.

This development is divided into five stages or levels that lead to autonomy. The questions we need to ask are rather which autonomous driving functions are likely to be seen on the road and when? But how are these levels defined? And which one do we currently find ourselves in?

 Gradual development of autonomous driving functions

The classification of the development stages up to the self-driving vehicle comes from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and describes the extent to which the vehicle can and may take over the tasks of the driver.

The levels range from 0 with no assistance systems at all to Level 5, which describes fully autonomous driving.

Five Levels to Automation

Level 0 – manual driving

Anyone who obtained their driving license before the 1990s probably still learned to drive a completely manual vehicle – without ESP, parking assistance, or any other kind of assistance system. According to the classification of the SAE, these vehicles belong to level 0.

Level 1 – driver assistance

New vehicles without any assistance systems are hardly to be found today; the majority of cars are equipped with assistance functions that correspond to Level 1. Examples include cruise control, lane departure warning, and emergency brake assistance. They support the driver, increase safety and driving convenience, but in no way replace his or her skills. The driver still steers the vehicle completely independently, is continually alert, and keeps a constant eye on the traffic.

Level 2 – partial automation

Level 2, as expected, goes one step further. Here, several assistance systems are often combined with one another so that the vehicle can independently perform individual driving maneuvers, such as parking or negotiating stop-and-go traffic. The driver can hand over control of the vehicle during these maneuvers, but must remain alert and be able to intervene at any time if something does not function as intended. The same applies to assistance functions such as lane departure warning or distance warning.

Current vehicle models are often categorized as Level 2, and even if the functions are sometimes very impressive, it must be made clear that these are by no means actual self-driving functions that allow drivers to divert their attention from the road.

Level 3 – conditional automation

With the step from Level 2 to Level 3, things begin to get more exciting: While Level 2 is all about assistance systems, in Level 3 the car actually drives autonomously under certain conditions. Drivers may temporarily turn their attention to activities other than driving and accordingly take their hands off the wheel. Level 3 enters the world of highly automated driving.

The added value of automating certain scenarios can be seen particularly clearly in highway driving: Driving straight ahead for long periods is boring and relatively straightforward compared with negotiating city traffic. Accordingly, a possible development towards Level 3 could be that vehicles on highways drive independently and drivers can devote themselves to other tasks during this time. When the highway exit is approaching or more complicated situations such as road works occur, the vehicle hands control back to the driver. However, this handover poses a number of challenges: Which activities may the driver perform while the car is steering itself? In what way and how long in advance must the vehicle announce a change of control? These questions need to be clarified, as does the technological assurance that the vehicle will recognize when a traffic situation exceeds its capabilities.

Level 4 – high automation

The next step after the initial automation of certain driving situations is the automation of all driving situations, i.e. fully automated driving on Level 4, where the vehicle controls complete journeys on the highway as well as in city traffic predominantly independently. Drivers can also devote themselves to other activities for longer periods of time, such as working, keeping the children in the back seat busy, or even sleeping.

Those who see their own driving pleasure endangered by autonomous driving functions do not need to worry: At Level 4 the driver can always take back control of the vehicle at any time. In some cases the vehicle may even hand over control to the driver if the system is no longer able to guarantee complete safety. If the driver does not react in this situation, the vehicle will come to a safe stop.

Level 5 – full automation

With Level 5 we have arrived at actual autonomous driving: Unlike the previous levels, neither driving ability nor a driving license are required to use the vehicle.

The driver becomes a pure passenger.

This can also be seen in the fact that fully autonomous vehicles have neither a steering wheel nor pedals – they are capable of driving completely independently and it is not intended for the passenger to interfere. The user merely determines the pick-up location and the destination. This opens up completely new possibilities for low-cost individual transport, because robo-taxi fleets consisting of fully automated vehicles can be operated very economically. In addition, they generate enormous advantages for people without a driving license or their own vehicle, such as children or senior citizens, and they offer great added value, especially in rural areas. Thus, autonomous vehicles will not only change the functional spectrum of the car in general, but also the concept of mobility itself from the ground up.

Autonomous driving will only be possible with reliable environment detection

The crucial step into the higher levels of autonomous driving is largely determined by the development of perception technology, i.e. sensor technology. Automated driving functions from Level 3 upwards are only possible if vehicles are able to reliably detect their entire environment and derive instructions for action accordingly. Such vehicles will make use of a wide range of sensors, such as ultrasonic sensors, radar, and cameras, with the LiDAR sensor at the center, thanks to its high resolution and reliable 3D measurement capabilities.

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