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Five Degrees of Autonomy

As auto manufacturers race against one another to release self driving vehicles, motorists will soon be presented with all types of autonomous driving solutions. With so many options likely to be available, as well as some current models that already claim to offer self driving functionality, motorists should be aware of the technology’s various iterations – namely, the five categories of autonomy as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers.



Level Zero: This is what we’re already accustom to in today’s vehicles. Vehicles are dependent upon full driver input, with the exception of automatic safety features which are designed to prevent or mitigate the impact of an accident.There is no degree of automation which goes into the  driving process.

Levels One and Two: This next band of technology is a step up from complete dependence on drivers, to a system where support is offered to manouevere and adjust the speed of the vehicle. The important feature to distinguish this stage is that it is only support which is offered, as the driver will still need to maintain a connection with the car. In a way, this adds a degree of control and surety when changing lanes and activating cruise control, since prompts will be made to the driver to maintain their focus and thus keep the car operational.

Level Three: This is the threshold at which point the vehicle becomes responsible for controlling the driving functionality, as well as responding to the driving environment. This is also the level at which point motorists may begin to disengage from the vehicle without it shutting down. Motorists may still be required to respond to unforessen events or directional queries, however, by and large the vehicle can navigate more complex driving conditions.


Level Four: The car is now equipped to fully navigate itself and also react as necessary in the event of an emergency. Any human dependence or interaction is limited specifically to the activation process when turning on the system upon ignition, and in an advisory capacity if required for navigation input (e.g. route selection) – rather than requests.

Level Five: The truly driverless vehicle. With level 5 capacity, a vehicle is capable of transporting its occupants without the need for a driver to be present. Similarly, the car may also be used without occupants or a driver as a remote vehicle to collect a person, or instead deliver an item to a specified address.

With Australia’s road laws that govern self driving still resembling something akin to a dog’s breakfast, what’s apparent is that for the higher categories of autonomy to become accepted, not only do we need to see regulatory change but also a sizeable shift in motorists behaviours. Mind you, even the benefits on offer by way of reduced transit times, fewer accidents and cheaper running costs don’t appear to be enough at the moment to convince drivers about the technology’s place in our future society.

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