Autonomous electric vehicles are great, but level 1 autonomous driving is yesterday’s reheated spaghetti, while level 5 is the Holy Grail. The problem is that if you were to say this to someone or write it as I just did, most people out there would have no idea what you’re talking about. So, how about a step back. Let’s take a glimpse at the bigger picture. Let’s start with a definition of the levels of autonomous driving that cars can offer.
Autonomous Self-Driving Lingo Explained
To a certain extent, almost all modern cars have some sort of autonomous vehicle (AV) level 1 feature, such as a simple cruise control feature. But as the AV features mature, both within the car and in terms of the coordination of data to facilitate mobility, then the vehicles slowly because driverless.
As Carolyn Fortuna explained in her excellent article last year called “Autonomous Driving Levels 0–5 + Implications,” as the level progresses, an exponential amount of more advanced technology must come together to make sure our cars can drive without our hands or feet.
Level 0 — Cars with no driving enhancement beyond basic security features. Any old cars with little to no electronics surely fit this description. That’s most cars from the mid-1980s to sometimes even early 1990s, and especially collector cars.
Level 1 — Offers adaptive cruise control. It might sound trite today, but this feature was a big welcome relief not that long ago for those who drove a lot. A cruise control that adapts to traffic speed without any human input was essentially the first level of autonomous driving. However, we’re still clearly under the driver assistance part of the spectrum.
Level 2 — Now things kick up a notch. Level 2 allows for partial autonomy. What this means is that certain cars — mostly higher-end cars to date, but slowly coming down the consumer trickle line — can sort of drive themselves, to a certain extent. This can include controlling the steering, incorporating speed aids, lane departure warnings, and even hitting the brakes to avoid an accident.
Level 3 — This is what experts call Conditional Automation, but don’t worry, you won’t have to remember that one. Level 3 offers the possibility to let go of most of the driving functions, but a human still retains control over almost anything the car does. Basically, the car can actually drive itself — but that doesn’t mean it always should. The human driver might need to react at a moment’s notice despite the car being able to avoid certain types of accidents. The problem at this level is that the system can be so good at driving itself that the human driver is certain to stop paying as much attention as he or she should — which could result in a big problem if something comes up that the self-driving system can’t handle appropriately. As a result of this guaranteed problem, Ford, Volvo, Waymo, and some others are skipping level 3 autonomy.
Level 4 — This is really a robot car. It can drive itself and also stop itself if it a problem arises. It requires a minimum amount of human driving input. Although it looks a bit like a mild progression of L3, it is actually a significant leap forward because such vehicles can really do it all. However, a driving wheel and human driving capabilities are retained … just in case. Certain situations and road conditions might require your input, and level 4 allows that.
Level 5 — This is the idealistic, “perfect” stage of driving automation — the pod-like AVs that snake quietly around moving people without fanfare from point A to B. These are the airport “subways,” the headless metros and pods that bring people around in their own little cocoons. They do not have a human driving option in them at all.
AV Lingo Making More Sense?
A recent article by Car & Driver also largely echoes Carolyn’s article. We feel it is a good idea for anyone to familiarize themselves with these terms, as they will become generalized soon enough. And here is one from the Washington Post.
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