Autonomous Vehicles Your Guide to the 5 Levels of Autonomy

Autonomous Vehicles Reading Time: 4 minutes

Manufacturers are touting various autonomous features in their vehicles today, but this journey is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.


If you are in the automotive market, you are being bombarded by headlines signaling the end of vehicle ownership as we know it. We’ve monitored hundreds of thousands of social media posts related to autonomous vehicles and one thing is clear, consumers are confused, skeptical and often times fearful of autonomous technologies.

“New @ThatchamRsrch: 60% of driver’s believe (wrongly) they can buy a self-driving car today. It’s a dangerous misconception, but don’t blame them; blame the companies for overpromising.” ~ Drew Harwell, Twitter

The fact is, manufacturers are pouring billions of dollars into the promise of autonomous vehicles and the endless rounds of new funding announcements are clear indicators that a massive shift is certain for our entire industry. If your income depends on the automobile, this signals the need to seriously consider your future and begin to prepare yourself for the industry’s evolution.

“Visiting China has made me way more skeptical that Level 5 autonomous vehicles are imminent. How on Earth could an AI be trained to deal with Bejing?” ~ James O’Malley, Twitter

But where are we on that journey? Who decides what autonomy is and which features are worthy of autonomous designation? Which are the fads or gimmicks and which are required to create autonomous vehicles?

At AMCI, we have positioned an entire team around this dynamic space to ensure that we, as an agency, and our clients have the support needed to keep pace with the speed of change. This blog is meant to provide you the tools to discuss this complex area, understand the origins of autonomy and deliver you a simple guide through the 5 Levels of Autonomy.

How Did We Get Here?

Before we explore where we are going, we must know where we’ve been. Some form of autonomy has been around for a long time. The first “radio-controlled car” drove in Manhattan in 1925. One of the first commercially available autonomous features was cruise control, invented in 1948 by Ralph Teetor and added to vehicles in the early 1960s. Then, in 1969, John McCarthy (of Artificial Intelligence fame) wrote an essay titled “Computer Controlled Cars” that described autonomy in a similar manner to what we use today.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University took a hands-free minivan coast to coast in 1995, but it was DARPA’s $1,000,000 in 2002 challenge to drive autonomously for 142 miles across the Mojave Desert that made things really take off.

Parking assist started with a Toyota Prius production car in 2003, followed by Lexus, Ford and BMW in 2009. Google got busy in 2009 and revealed its driverless car in 2014. Mercedes-Benz introduced the first production car with Level 2 autonomy in 2014.

Now, automotive manufacturers, parts suppliers, ride-sharing companies and technology companies are all trying to carve out an approach. Unfortunately, partially because of various names for similar features, there is confusion among consumers about many aspects of vehicle autonomy.

There are some who have over-hyped vehicle autonomy arrival while many have greatly underestimated its complexity. Some OEMs have not been as clear as we would like in describing either the capabilities or timetable for adoption. It has come a long way over the last 2 years, but there are still many technological challenges and even more legislative and legal issues that will need to be resolved.

For a time, there were competing definitions of autonomy levels. But this has been largely resolved with the industry adopting the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) classifications. Let’s start here.


Level 0: No Driver Assistance/No Automation

Level 0 has no automation. It requires the driver to always be in full control of the vehicle.

Level 1: Driver Assistance

Level 1 requires the driver to pay full attention to the driving environment and be in control of the vehicle. These features allow the driver to give temporary control of limited functions to the vehicle while still paying attention to the driving environment. These features include acceleration/deceleration (adaptive cruise control) and steering (parking assistance)—but not both at the same time.

Level 2: Partial Automation/Driver Assistance

Level 2 requires the driver to immediately be ready to take control of the vehicle. These systems can control both acceleration/deceleration and steering at the same time, allowing the driver to remove their hands from the steering wheel and feet from the pedals. The driver must always be attentive if traffic conditions or the driving environment falls outside the limits of the system. This could be a traffic light, construction, road hazards or changing lanes. Audi Traffic Jam Assist, Cadillac SuperCruise and Tesla Autopilot are in this category. SuperCruise, for instance, can be operated on pre-mapped freeways (but not city streets) and requires the driver to keep their eyes on the road.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

Level 3 requires the driver to be attentive and available to take control of the vehicle. The vehicle can drive itself in certain situations, such as in traffic or on divided highways or freeways. When in autonomous mode, human intervention is not needed, but the driver must be ready if the situation exceeds the system’s limits. The 2019 Audi A8 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class will have this capability. 

Level 4: High Automation

Level 4 requires the driver to be available to take control of the vehicle. The vehicle can drive itself most of the time, but may require human intervention in exceptional circumstances. This is what both Cruise and Waymo are currently testing in limited geographic areas with test “drivers” behind the wheel.

Level 5: Full Automation

Level 5 does not require any driver involvement, other than submitting a pick-up point and destination. Full autonomy enables the vehicle to drive itself in all circumstances with no need or ability for human intervention. This includes highways, freeways, city streets, country and dirt roads during the day and night, whether it is sunny or pitch black, and under all weather conditions, including rain, fog, ice or snow. Waymo is testing this in limited areas, currently in Chrysler Pacifica minivans with plans to test the technology in Jaguar I-PACE EVs.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If you look at other sites, you’ll see similar definitions of the SAE autonomous levels presented here. There are still discussions and some amount of confusion, both among industry experts and the public, about which current features fall into which categories and which are truly available today and could be in the future. In an upcoming blog, we’ll expand on the different terminologies for similar autonomous features and where these features belong in the SAE autonomous vehicle levels, and discuss some of the challenges manufacturers face in moving towards creating a fully autonomous vehicle.

In the meantime here are two great articles from our other Solution Development Team grounds on How to Sell Electric Vehicles and What’s In Store for Automotive Retail.


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