Evaluating the progress being made with autonomous vehicles in contemporary society, involves looking at the way in which the technology is currently measured. At present, a rating of between 0 and 5 is being used to categorise vehicles and their technology in terms of their autonomous capabilities. Level 5 refers to vehicles which are completely autonomous – no driver input is required. Level 0, by contrast, is the level where vehicles are 100% manually controlled. By categorising vehicles in this way, we can see how the technology has progressed, and which vehicles are already working in an autonomous, or semi-autonomous way.
Level 0 vehicles are the traditional cars used by most people in society. They are 100% manually controlled and no function of the vehicle is automated. The level is entitled ‘no automation’ – self-explanatory! Just to be clear, if you have a level 0 vehicle, do not rely on it for any automated driving…
This is where things start to get interesting. Level 1 – entitled ‘driver assistance’ – involves humans working in partnership with the car’s computer, to perform certain driving tasks. Steering or accelerating can be carried out by the clever car. A car which has automated breaking would also fall into the level 1 bracket.
The first stage towards a successful autonomous vehicle world starts at this level. See some experimental off-road vehicles from Jaguar’s Land Rover for examples of Level 1 cars already in operation.
Level 2 vehicles are slightly more intelligent than those within level 1, and use information about the driving environment to base decisions on. For this reason, the level is known as ‘partial automation.’ During level 2, cars can accelerate, de-celerate and steer automatically, and drivers can be completely disengaged from operating the vehicle for this to happen (i.e. they do not have to have their feet on the petal, nor do they need to have their hands on the steering wheel). Drivers do, however, need to perform the car’s other functions. Level 2 cars need to have at least 2 automated functions to reach this category – the most common functions seen are lane centering and cruise control.
Excitement builds as we progress through the levels of automation! Level 3 is a further improvement on level 2, as more safety-critical functions move from the human to the car within specific traffic or environmental conditions. The driver cannot be 100% reliant on the car’s computer though, and still needs to be present. However, they do not need to constantly monitor the situation the vehicle is within as much as other levels. Like level 2, level 3 is also known as ‘partial automation.’
As we enter level 4, we start to enter sci-fi status! Level 4 is entitled ‘High Automation’ and the safety-critical functions of cars – for the entire trip – are controlled by the car! This is where things start to seem real (or unreal); roadway conditions are monitored by the highly automated vehicle and we might dare to think about hanging up the driving gloves and putting our feet up. However, not every driving scenario is covered by the autonomous vehicles, so a driver is still required in the hot seat.
This is where the dream becomes reality! A level 5 car is known as ‘full automation’ meaning exactly what is said – the car is fully autonomous and no human driver is required at all. All of the functions are controlled by the vehicle, and passengers can sit back and almost forget that they are travelling at speed. Google are aiming to produce a level 5 car as soon as they can – via the subsidiary company, ‘Waymo.’ This will revolutionise the whole production and appearance of cars; they won’t need pedals, controls for a human to regain control, or a steering wheel.
The level of autonomy for vehicles can help us to analyse how much progress is being made – and how autonomous a vehicle’s ability truly is. It also helps us to realise that autonomous vehicles are already in operation today, albeit in a slightly more diluted version to what we are eventually hoping for. However, the fact that the technology exists – and is making progress – makes us feel very optimistic about our driverless future. To discuss levels of autonomy, or other elements of the industry, the MCAV ‘future of transport’ event on the 27th June will provide an opportunity for you to join the discussions. If you are interested in becoming an event sponsor, please contact us.
By Neil Phipps
Photo by Landrover MENA