Driver assisted technologies, driverless technology, robotic cars, autonomous vehicles…  If all the different talk and types of autonomous driving has you a bit confused you’re not alone.  In this iDriveSoCal Podcast we lay out the six Automation Levels as described by the Society of Automotive Engineers and accepted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  And yes there are six levels, not five, listen to get all the details.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Automated Safety for Vehicles


Recorded March 12, 2017

Tom Smith: Welcome to iDriveSoCal, the podcast all about mobility from the automotive capital of the United States – Southern California.

I’m Tom Smith, and in this episode, we’re talking about automated driving.  Specifically, we’re going to identify the different levels of automated driving.

But before we can do that we need to frame the rather complex issue.

We hear a lot about driver assisted technology, driverless technologies, robotic cars and the like.

Personally, I get excited about it all of it and can’t wait for it to get here.

But the reality is that some automated driving technology – depending on how you look at it, a lot of it actually – is already here.

The topic can be confusing because of the definition of the different levels of automation that fall under the umbrella of quote-unquote “automated driving.”

The topic can also be confusing because there’s many different major industries and organizations dealing with it. And they all have skin in the game so to speak.

First, you have the for-profit companies that want to bring automated driving technology to you and me – the consumers.

  • That includes:
    • Traditional automotive manufacturers like General Motors.
    • Newcomers to automotive manufacturing like Tesla.
    • But then also, technology companies like Google’s self-driving arm Waymo and Uber.

Then there are the existing Federal government agencies that need to keep us safe by managing their current domains but still accepting, if not embracing, the future.

  • These entities include:
    • NHTSA – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
    • And the NTSB – The National Transportation Safety Board.
      • Both of these organizations were on the scene to investigate a Tesla crash here in LA just a few weeks back.

And then we have the different states in the US deciding what they’re going to allow and not allow.  And that’s even been an issue just from a perspective of testing technology that would ventually be implemented.

  • For example; Arizona has become the beneficiary of companies moving there to test automated driving tech that California has wanted to move more slowly in allowing.

And let’s not forget groups like Consumer Watchdog who we spoke with a couple weeks ago.  They’re basically saying – hey this all is great but let’s proceed with caution because this is a very big hairy issue.

I might be forgetting something or some-group but you get the point.  The topic of automated driving is big.  There’s a great deal at stake for powerful groups.  And because of that it’s been, and will probably continue to be, quite a fluid situation.

With all of that in mind there’s one more important group to mention – the Society of Automotive Engineers.

  • You’re probably aware of them, and have been for a long time, you just don’t know it.
  • They usually go by their acronym – SAE.
    • You’ve seen that around various automotive documentation haven’t you?
      • I know I have but didn’t realize it until recently.

Anyway, SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineers) is relevant here because just a couple years ago – NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) decided to accept SAE’s definitions of the various levels of automated driving.

NHTSA has a cool timeline on their website – in case you want to check it out; we have a link to it through this podcast’s post on iDriveSoCal.

Now NHTSA refers to automated driving technologies as vehicle safety features or safety technology.  And that’s fair –

all things considered.

But that can also further confuse the issue.  Just know that the terms can be used interchangeably to refer to technology that will deliver similar outcomes.

So again, SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineer) has defined six levels of driving automation which NHTSA (the National Highway Transportation Administration) has accepted.

One last element of confusion – the six levels are labeled Zero through Five because the first level involves no automation at all.

So here we go with the levels:

  • Level Zero – It’s referred to as No Automation. You, the driver are executing all tasks of operating the vehicle.
  • Level One – Is referred to as Driver Assistance.
    • You, the driver are in control but you have the option to have the vehicle execute some tasks of driving.
      • The vehicle might steer a little for you or it might brake-or-accelerate for you;
      • But it cannot execute both steering and braking-or-accelerating at the same time.
        • Basic cruise control, which we’ve had seemingly forever, falls into the Level One category.
      • Level Two – This is referred to as Partial Automation.
        • In this case the vehicle can execute both steering and braking-or-accelerating at the same time.
        • But you, the driver, must remain engaged and ready to take-over at any moment.
          • Tesla’s auto pilot has been here since 2014.
            • And that’s why NHTSA & the NTSB were investigating that recent accident here in LA.
          • Level Three – Is called Conditional Automation.
            • Here the vehicle can drive itself.
            • But you, the driver, are still a necessity.
            • And, you must be ready to take control at any moment.
          • Level Four – Is High Automation.
            • At this point, the driver is optional.
            • But the car will only function in a designated geographic area.
              • Like within a city’s limits.
            • Level Five – The biggie, and the one some say will probably be a long-way off, Full Automation.
              • The Driver is optional.
              • The vehicle can drive itself anywhere.
                • Anywhere is key here.

The reason why many say Level Five is likely a long way off is because of the probable need for infrastructure – across the country – to be able to communicate with (or guide) vehicles.

Just think of it – every road – across the country has to be marked just-so in order for the Full Automation of Level Five.  Every Interstate, every highway, every street, boulevard, side-street, alley-way, etc.  That is a crazy thought.

So, going back to Level Four with High Automation.  Waymo has not only been testing this technology in Arizona since last year but they’ve recently been given approval to deploy it to the general public.

And Waymo says that Phoenix residents will be able to hail driverless Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids by the end of this year.

Let me restate that so it sinks in.  By the end of this year residents in Phoenix, Arizona will be hailing driverless vehicles to take them around town.

So, back to the top of this podcast; I stated the reality is that some automated driving technology – depending on how you look at it – is already here.

  • Well, that’s because it is. And I might just have to take a road trip to Phoenix in a few months to be one of the first to experience what the future holds.

But personally, I’m always going to want to drive.  Always.  I love it – just not the traffic congestion.

For iDriveSoCal, I’m Tom Smith, thanks for listening.