Understanding Levels of Autonomous Driving

Understanding Levels of Autonomous Driving

The electric car joint venture between Sony and Honda intends to start shipping to the US and Japan in 2026. The company, known as Sony Honda Mobility (SHM), plans to begin accepting pre-orders for its vehicle in the first half of 2025 and intends to begin selling it by the end of the year. Deliveries to the U.S. market will begin in the spring of 2026, and deliveries to the Japanese market will take place in the second half of that year. According to SHM, its goals are to create a Level 3 automated drive under specific circumstances and to make Level 2+ driver assistance available in more circumstances, including driving in cities.

Tesla has been under constant scrutiny and investigations into motor vehicle accidents using Autopilot or FSD Beta. And the same will no doubt continue to happen whenever a vehicle accident involves an EV with driving assistance.

So, what are the levels of driving automation? Here we summarize the definitions by SAE International, an association made up of technical experts and engineers.

Level 0 (No Driving Automation)

Today's majority of cars are Level 0: manually operated. Despite the possibility of assistance devices, “dynamic driving" is performed by the driver. An illustration would be the emergency braking system, which technically does not qualify as automation because it does not steer the vehicle.

Level 1 (Driver Assistance)

The lowest level of automation is with driver assistance. One autonomous driving assistance system that may steer or accelerate is present in the vehicle (cruise control). Adaptive cruise control, which enables a vehicle to be maintained at a safe distance behind a vehicle in front of it, is categorized as Level 1 since the human driver is in charge of all other aspects of driving, such as steering and braking.

Level 2 (Partial Driving Automation)

This refers to ADAS, or advanced driver assistance systems. The car has steering and acceleration/deceleration controls. Because a human is seated in the driver's seat and has the ability to take over the vehicle at any time, this automation falls short of self-driving in this instance. Level 2 systems include Cadillac (General Motors) Super Cruise and Tesla Autopilot.

Level 3 (Conditional Driving Automation)

From a technological standpoint, the change from Level 2 to Level 3 is significant, yet from a human perspective it is minor.

Level 3 cars are capable of "environmental detection" and autonomous decision-making, like accelerating past a stationary object. However, they still need human override. If the system is unable to complete the task, the driver must remain vigilant and prepared to take over.

The following generation of Audi's (Volkswagen's) flagship sedan, the A8, will be the first Level 3 production car ever, the company declared over two years ago. They also delivered. Traffic Jam Pilot is one of its features; it fuses a lidar scanner with cutting-edge sensor fusion and computing power (plus built-in redundancies should a component fail).

Audi A8

While Audi was creating their engineering miracle, the U.S. regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles changed from federal guidelines to state-by-state mandates. The EV will therefore come without essential hardware and software needed to achieve Level 3 capabilities because it is still categorized as a Level 2 car in the United States for the time being. However, Audi will introduce the full Level 3 A8L with Traffic Jam Pilot throughout Europe (in Germany first).

Level 4 (High Driving Automation)

The main distinction between Level 3 and Level 4 automation is the ability of Level 4 vehicles to step in when something goes wrong, or a system fails. In this way, these cars typically don't need to interact with people. An individual can still manually overrule, though.

Level 4 offers capabilities to operate autonomously, however, they can only do it in a small area while laws and infrastructure remain the same (usually an urban environment where top speeds reach an average of 30mph).

In Arizona, where they had been testing driverless cars for more than a year and more than 10 million miles without a safety driver in the driver's seat, Alphabet's Waymo recently debuted a Level 4 self-driving taxi service. And a few months ago, Volvo and Baidu declared their strategic alliance to create Level 4 electric vehicles for the Chinese robotaxi sector.