The levels of autonomous driving

As mentioned in the previous article (The future of autonomous driving), automobile companies already incorporate automation in some of their vehicles, which unload the driver from performing certain tasks. In order to be able to compare the different benefits of different vehicles, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has established a classification to determine what is the level of autonomy of a given vehicle. This scale has 6 levels: 

Level 0: No automation 

It is the initial level. The driver is in command and takes over all the actions necessary to drive the vehicle. Active safety systems such as ESP or ABS , although they are an aid to driving, are not considered automation. 

Level 1: Basic autonomy 

Level 1 vehicles are those that can control lateral or longitudinal movement, but not both at the same time, for example by means of an emergency braking system (AEB), an adaptive cruise control (ACC), or an involuntary lane departure warning system. 

Many of the cars for sale currently are at this level. In 1999, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class became the first, having a radar-assisted adaptive cruise control (Distronic), which allowed it to maintain distance on the highway even in foggy conditions or heavy rain. 

Level 2: Partial automation 

At this level, the vehicles have driving assistants that allow lateral and longitudinal movement to be controlled. Here we began to have a certain autonomy, which would allow the driver to separate his hands from the wheel and his view of the road, although only for short periods of time. For example, if an adaptive cruise control is combined with a Lane Keeping Assist (LKA), a vehicle will be able to travel on a highway autonomously. Automatic parking systems, in which the vehicle takes control of the steering wheel and the pedals, also allow a vehicle to be considered as belonging to level 2 of autonomy. 

The first car to reach level 2 was the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in 2013. 

Level 3: Conditional Automation 

In cars of this level , the driver can decide that the automated driving system takes control of the vehicle and performs all driving functions, albeit with certain limitations. 

To do this, vehicles must be able to analyze the environment and make decisions. This technology uses sensors and cameras to record everything that happens around the vehicle so that the moment the driver voluntarily relinquishes control, the car can make the appropriate decisions. In this way, they can travel on a highway and even take an exit and continue driving on the road, or stop and move forward in the middle of a traffic jam without the driver making any maneuver. Of course, the driver must always be aware of what happens on the road to regain control if necessary, either because the system does not know how to act in an unforeseen dangerous situation, for example in the event of road works, or because its geographical limits of action are exceeded. In those cases, 

Currently, the maximum representative of level 3 of autonomy is the  Autopilot 2.0  of the Tesla Model S. 

Level 4: High automation 

At this level, the automated driving system can drive the vehicle in a sustained manner over time without the expectation that the driver will respond to a demand for intervention, except when it is outside its scope of action. The system is prepared to act in an unforeseen dangerous situation and to carry out without help the set of actions that lead to the safest possible situation (it is called a minimum risk situation). Although the automated driving system of level 4 vehicles also has a scope of action, and can warn the driver to resume driving, in the event that the driver does not respond, the vehicle will be able to stop in a safe area ( the driver is not expected to regain control). That is to say, 

An example of vehicles of this level would be the autonomous cars of Google, which already circulate in tests in controlled environments. 

Level 5: Full automation 

At level 5, the Automated Driving System (ADS) has a scope of operation that encompasses all conditions and places that a human driver could travel through. This means that for the ADS  no geographical or weather limitations are designed and, therefore, that the vehicle can do without a driver … and elements such as the steering wheel or the pedals. 

Although it may seem like a small step from the previous level, full autonomy is a challenge for current technology, because it involves replacing the driver in any situation or condition, which would include driving on unpaved roads, in adverse weather conditions … or even park between columns in a dark underground car park. In addition, it must be borne in mind that not everything will depend on the vehicle itself, but also on the possibility of communication with other vehicles, with infrastructures or with traffic control centers. This level of automation requires legislative changes, as well as a series of interventions in infrastructures. The European Parliament foresees that it will not be a reality before 2030 . 

Some companies are currently working on prototypes of level 5 autonomous vehicles, with the aim of being able to operate autonomous taxis or trucks. Work is also under way on advances such as highways in which autonomous electric vehicles would be recharged by induction while traveling on them.  

Legislation and robotic ethics 

Autonomous driving has many advantages over traditional driving. The first has to do with road safety because an autonomous vehicle will never exceed a speed limit or perform an illegal maneuver. Its operation is based on strict compliance with imposed guidelines. There is no interpretation, much less violation of the rules. 

In addition, thanks to technologies such as lasers, radar, GPS, or camera vision, the vehicle would have a 360-degree view of the environment, something that a human driver is not capable of achieving. All this would be the greatest advance in road safety that has ever occurred since autonomous vehicles would achieve prudence and control impossible for a human being to achieve. 

Finally, autonomous vehicles will not only bring advantages. Although autonomous driving will create new jobs in the automotive and software development industries, it will destroy numerous jobs in the transportation sector, condemning drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, or truckers to share fate with muleteers, serene, blacksmiths or town criers. And it will also have another unwanted side effect. As the trucks will no longer be limited by the drivers’ rest periods, and they will be able to constantly circulate on electrified highways without having to stop, we will no longer have a way of knowing in which roadside restaurant to eat well … because in none of them there will be parked trucks. 

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