Driving levels: Scale of how autonomous self-driving cars

The inside of a Tesla vehicle is viewed as it sits parked in a new Tesla showroom and service center in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
The inside of a Tesla vehicle is viewed as it sits parked in a new Tesla showroom and service center in Red Hook, Brooklyn. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Tesla’s autopilot system is not quite at the point of being fully autonomous, which would mean a car driving from Point A to Point B without human intervention.

The Tesla system ranks a 2 on an autonomous driving scale -from 0 to 5- set by the the Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE.

In 2016, SAE defined a set of levels of autonomous technology building upon a 2013 0-to-4 scale set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The groups have outlined the benchmarks for a vehicle that needs a driver to one that doesn’t.

Tesla is far from alone with its “2” ranking as no manufacturer sells a car capable of Level 3 automation.

Here’s an explanation of each level of automation:

•    Level 0: No Automation. Just what it sounds like: zero. There’s no technology to help with steering, braking, or acceleration. The driver is in charge of everything - this is as basic as it gets.

•    Level 1: Driver Assistance. Some functions of driving can be done by the car, giving you a tiny amount of driver assistance. The most widely used example is modern-day cruise control, which was introduced in 1958 on the Chrysler Imperial and designed by a blind mechanical engineer named Ralph Teetor.

•    Level 2: Partial Automation. The vehicle is capable of conducting some aspect of the driving experience while the driver monitors the surroundings. What can Level 2 automation do? Both the human and the car can control steering  for ane centering, acceleration and deceleration, emergency braking and other features, including parking or lane changing. Just about every manufacturer has started integrating partial automation features into their vehicles as either standard equipment or as options.

Two well-known examples for collision mitigation in affordably priced vehicles include Honda Sensing and Subaru EyeSight. But as you start to step in vehicle pricing, the systems get more comprehensive. Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot, Cadillac’s Super Cruise, and Volvo’s Pilot Assist II are three of the higher end more advanced systems in the upper tier of Level 2. In semi-autonomous mode --cruising on a highway-- both autopilot and pilot assist II require a driver to keep at least one hand on the wheel. Super cruise drivers can go hands-free, but an infrared camera scans a driver’s eyes to make sure he or she is paying attention to the road. And Super Cruise only works on roads Cadillac engineers have already laser-scanned and loaded into their database to 130,000 miles and counting.

Instead of highway speeds, Traffic Jam Assist only works under 37.3 mph. Two more systems developed by German luxury brands: BMW’s Traffic Jam Assistant and Mercedes-Benz’s Active Distance Control Distronic and Active Steering Assist --which can automatically adjust speeds for curves, corners, and traffic circles, and is able to read some -- but not all -- traffic signs.

•    Level 3: Conditional Automation. While the driver is still necessary to be in the vehicle, “safety critical functions” can shift to the car's autonomous system with no driver interaction. The car can drive itself, but the driver still has to be ready to step in and take control. Responsibility for “monitoring the environment” also shifts from the human to the car in a Level 3 vehicle.

Some new Teslas already have the hardware built in to achieve Level 3 autonomy. Tesla continues to do testing before it will let the system go live. Audi also has the hardware built into some cars and is ready to goat some point in the near future. When Audis go to Level 3, that system will be known as Traffic Jam Pilot and will let the car go autonomous up to 37 mph without the driver having to touch the steering wheel or keep his or her eyes on the road. Mercedes Benz has publicly stated its top of the line S-Class would have Level 3 capabilities by 2020. BMW officials said its Level 3 technology called Personal CoPilot will be ready by 2021.

•    Level 4: High Automation. On Level 4, a vehicle can be fully autonomous in certain driving conditions, known as “operational design domain." The car will drive itself, most of the time, but not 100 percent.

•    Level 5: Full Automation. This is it: the car can drive itself all of the time, under any condition.

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