Self-Driving Car Fundamentals: The Five Stages of Automation

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A Brief introduction to the *NHTSA’s Five Stages of Automation for Self-Driving Vehicles

This brief takes you into the world of Autonomous vehicles by introducing you to the 5 stages of automation as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The five stages of automation highlight the different levels of autonomy that self-driving cars are expected to be able to operate on starting from Level 0, where most vehicles are today, to more sophisticated stages four and five. There are five levels of automation recognized universally and whilst the specifics of how each level is defined might vary, the most commonly used definition is by the SAE. Within the SAE’s definition:

  • At Level 0: The human driver is in complete control of the vehicle.
  • At Level 1: The human driver sometimes receives help from an automated system inside the vehicle which controls some parts of the driving task.
  • At Level 2: The automated system is responsible for directing parts of the driving task whilst the human driver continues to monitor the driving environment and perform the rest of the driving.
  • At Level 3:  The automated system can conduct some parts of the driving task and monitor the driving environment in some instances, but the human driver must be ready to take back control on request.
  • At Level 4: The automated system can handle the driving task and monitor the driving environment. But whilst the human will not need to take back control, the automated system will only be able to operate in certain environments and under certain conditions.
  • At Level 5: The automated system can perform all driving tasks under all conditions that a human driver would also perform.[1]

The most exciting takeaway from the five stages is that if you do eventually find yourself in a ‘fully’ or near fully Autonomous vehicle operating at Levels 4 and 5, you will not be responsible for any part of the driving experience. An on-board AI will be handling this for you. The Ministry of Transports code of practice in the UK has described vehicles at stage five as being

Capable of safely completing [all] journeys without the need for a driver, in all traffic road and weather conditions that can be managed by a competent driver.”

So, as long as you have faith in the competent driver or soon to be ‘AI’. Whether you’re a member of the disabled, elderly, perpetually tired, intoxicated, or just poorly motivated, you can rest assured that there will soon be an Autonomous Vehicle out there that can meet your (almost) every driving need.

[1] ‘Federal Automated Vehicles Policy: Accelerating The Next Revolution In Roadway Safety’ [2016] U.S Department of Transportationhttps://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/AV%20policy%20guidance%20PDF.pdf
*National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

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