The Levels of Self-Driving Cars, Explained

When most people think of autonomous vehicles, they think of something like a Tesla rolling around without anyone in the driver’s seat. Yet the reality of autonomous cars is far different from that. In fact, there are six levels of self-driving cars. Each of these levels has a different range of abilities and limitations. So what are the levels of autonomous vehicles? Let’s take a look. 

A white 2021 Tesla Model 3 against a white background.
2021 Tesla Model

Level zero autonomous vehicles don’t do a thing

There are six levels of autonomous vehicles, yet level 0 isn’t really autonomous. In fact, the definition of a level 0 autonomous vehicle is one with absolutely no autonomy. The driver does everything in a level 0 autonomous vehicle. 

Level one autonomy is very limited

As you can probably guess, a level one, or driver assistance, autonomous vehicle has very limited autonomy. This kind of car isn’t about to wrench control of society from humans and rule over us while we rue the day we invented robots. No, level one vehicles can only perform one function such as accelerating or braking at a time, so we’re safe for now. Level one autonomy includes features like cruise control. 

Level two autonomous vehicles are slightly more advanced

This is what most vehicles described as autonomous these days are, including Tesla’s Full Self-Driving software. Level two autonomous vehicles (or partial driving automation) can both steer and accelerate. The thing about level two autonomous vehicles is that you can’t leave them alone to drive themselves, and this is what people don’t understand. A human must sit in the driver’s seat and be ready to take control of the vehicle at any time. Level two autonomous vehicles are not capable of operating independently, despite what some semi-autonomous vehicle owners may think. 

Level three autonomous vehicles still need a driver, but not to the same extent as in a level two

Level three is called conditional automation. Currently there aren’t any level three autonomous vehicles on the market. When we do have level 3 autonomous vehicles for sale, they will require a driver to take over with notice, but not to monitor the roads the way level 2 autonomous vehicles require. 

Level four cars are driverless, but a human must still be there

If we get to a point where we have level four self-driving cars (known as high driving automation), it’s important to note that a human must still be present. Yet in a level four autonomous vehicle, the vehicle is capable of doing everything within certain conditions. Some of these conditions include things like roads with speed limits up to 30 mph. Level four vehicles are on the roads, but they can’t be bought by just anyone who wants a driverless car. Right now they’re used by rideshare companies like Waymo. 

Level five autonomous vehicles are the most independent

Level five, or full driving automation, doesn’t exist yet, or at least it isn’t available for people to buy. Synopsys says that level five cars won’t even have steering wheels or pedals, because there will be no need for them. Recently Elon Musk discussed the possibility of the new Tesla Model 2 being fully autonomous and not having a steering wheel or pedals. 

Even though we’re advancing toward more independent autonomous vehicles, we’re still a long time away from a level five driverless car. This is because there are some serious security risks associated with a car that’s so connected that it doesn’t need human intervention (or even supervision). There also aren’t enough laws or guidelines to allow us to have fully autonomous vehicles on the roads yet, but we’re certainly getting closer.

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