what are the differences between the levels of autonomy?

We explain to you what the different levels of autonomous driving correspond to. Between completely autonomous driving, semi-autonomous driving and driving aids, we help you see more clearly.

Mercedes Drive Pilot
Mercedes Drive Pilot

Today, practically all mobility players, and much more, have looked into autonomous vehicles. Tesla with its autopilot, the Stellantis group with Valéo, Renault, Google Waymo, Mercedes with its new EQS, Uber, Volvo … All work on the autonomous driving of vehicles.

The legislation has never really been very clear regarding autonomous vehicles. There is often confusion between driving and autonomous driving aids. Driving aid (adaptive regulator, keeping in the way, etc.) are more and more efficient but cannot do without a human driver. Quite the opposite of autonomous driving, which must be able to do without human presence.

Define what can do or not do human drivers and autonomous systems

In 2014, the SAE (for SOCIETY OF AUTOMOTIVE Engineers) International, a professional organization that brings together several scientists and engineers, has proposed a grid for the understanding and classification of autonomous vehicles. This grid is therefore at the origin of the classification in categories, allowing to define what can do or not do human drivers and autonomous systems.

It is also a benchmark for manufacturers and governments that regularly look at the various questions related to the mobility of the future, mobility sometimes directly linked to autonomous systems. The International Organization of Automobile Manufacturers (OICA) has also defined a European scale with six levels of autonomy for vehicles, a system similar to that designed by the SAE.

Level 0: Only warnings

As its name suggests, it is the zero level of autonomy and assistance. Understand by this that the entire driving part is carried out by the driver, Without any car help. Here, no cruise control, no automatic emergency braking or even helping support in the track.

Level 0, however, incorporates autonomous driving features: automatic emergency braking, the blind spot warning and the lane crossing warning. This is warning, via different visual and sound signals, but the car will not change its speed or trajectory.

Level 1: Main driving aid, no more!

This is generally what we found on new cars of the 2010s. The driver is obviously present 100 % of the time and the car is not supposed to make any decision “alone”. But it offers various driving assistance features to the driver.

Among these assistances, we can quote the adaptive cruise control (the car accelerates and slows down itself) and helping keeping the track (to stay in the center of it).

Level 1 allows only one of these two features to work at the same time. If they work in parallel, then we go to level 2.

Level 2: The car accelerates, brakes and turns

As with level 1, the driver must keep an eye on his environment to be able to quickly regain control of the vehicle if necessary. Level 2 allows the car to accelerate, slow down and keep its place in the path of itself. The driver is always responsible for driving.

It is for this reason that it is necessary (depending on the cars) either keep the steering wheel in your hands, or continue to look at the road. It is this last way that Cadillac chose with its super cruise, thanks to a camera in the passenger compartment which monitors the driver and reminds him to order if he no longer looks at the road.

Mercedes Drive Pilot

From January 1, 2023, cars will also be able to double, without intervention or human validation. As is already the case in the United States where Tesla can make the decision to double. In Europe, Tesla is waiting for the order to come from the driver (via the indicator comodo) before starting the automatic exceeding procedure.


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Level 2 is the most widespread level in new cars at the moment and takes a different name depending on the manufacturers. At Tesla, the autopilot is level 2, including with the Full Self Driving Pack in beta in the United States. Indeed, the driver must remain master of his vehicle and be able to regain control at any time. This is what distinguishes level 2 from level 3.

Level 3: Conditional autonomous conduct

It is from there that we can really start talking about autonomous vehicles. The car will use similar features at level 2, but with a difference in size: the driver is no longer responsible for driving. It is the car that “drives” and the driver then becomes a simple passenger.

Be careful however since the car can ask the driver to resume the steering wheel, if it no longer meets the conditions necessary for autonomous driving of level 3. Thus, in Europe, autonomous level 3 is not accessible everywhere and all the time.

Geographically, the car must be on a road prohibited for pedestrians and cyclists, with a central separator. In France, this is the case for roads with limited access (2 x 2 lanes) and motorways.

Mercedes Drive Pilot
Mercedes Drive Pilot: Autonomous Level 3 driving

The maximum speed is then limited to 60 km/h, which allows you to delegate driving to the car in motorway caps for example. This speed can be brought to 130 km/h from January 1, 2023 in a very specific case: when the car has the capacity to make overtaking without human intervention.

Level 3 indicates that the driver must be able to regain control of the vehicle at any time, but that the car is perfectly autonomous in certain conditions.

In the event of an accident and from this autonomous level of driving, it is no longer the driver who is responsible but the manufacturer. We therefore understand why these are reluctant to authorize this kind of features.

Mercedes EQS with Drive Pilot
Mercedes Eqs with Drive Pilot

Today, some serial cars oscillate between levels 2 and 3. This is particularly the case of Tesla which, a few years ago, proposed a very convincing automatic driving system, but today unfortunately restrained by the European legislator standards which obliges the brand to review its copy.

For the moment, because of the legislator, the Tesla are still under level 2 of autonomy, but they check some boxes of level 3. The Californian company claims to be ready when level 3 of autonomy is legalized and democratized .

Mercedes is for the moment the only car manufacturer to offer a car compatible with level 3 autonomous driving thanks to the new S class and the 100 % electric EQS ​​with the Drive Pilot option and its Lidar. But for the moment, only on more than 13,000 km/h of German highways at a speed limited to 60 km/h, in good weather and by day.

The Chinese manufacturer Xpeng is working hard on a level 3 autonomous driving system and recently made a rather convincing demonstration.

Level 4: Complete autonomy but not everywhere

With level 4, the driver is no longer necessary. It is the car that bears the responsibility for driving. But only in certain circumstances and on certain roads.

The vehicle provides the entire driving process completely autonomously, that is to say without even the necessary presence of a driver on board. The system has its responsibilities on all the actions it will perform, in particular concerning maneuvers or its decisions according to the evolution of the environment.

It is thus possible to remove the steering wheel and the pedals. Level 4 thus corresponds to autonomous taxis which are limited to certain areas such as the Waymo alphabet shuttles or even the Ioniq 5 of Hyundai in Korea.

Level 5: complete autonomy, everywhere, all the time

The vehicle combines absolutely all driving tasks and is not subject to any human intervention. Whether on a highway or in the city center, at night and day, it is able to evolve in total autonomy.

Here, there are no more limitations linked to the geographic area or speed. The level 5 autonomous car would thus be possible to cross Europe, from Lisbon to Bergen without any human intervention. But there is still a long way to go to get there.

Source: Waymo

Autonomous cars and France

As with many countries, France has also set its conditions for the use and arrival of autonomous vehicles. Obviously, many questions remain around such a subject, especially in terms of ethics, but also in terms of insurance.

An order taken by the Council of Ministers by the French Government, Wednesday, August 3, 2016, authorizes the testing of driverless cars on the roads of France. Until now the authorizations have been issued on a case -by -case basis. For example, in 2017, France and Germany agreed to test driver -free cars for 70 kilometers between Metz and Merzig on the road and highway.

When will 100% autonomous cars arrive?

Certainly not for tomorrow. If the manufacturers are generally well advanced on this subject, it is the legislator that will have the last word, especially in Europe. There are still a lot of parameters to take into account and the degree of autonomy of a vehicle does not only depend on itself, but also of the environment around it. Thus, cities will also have to be connected to streamline traffic or send information to autonomous vehicles.

We have also recently noted a small drop in interest in car manufacturers concerning the total autonomy of vehicles, in particular since certain short -term issues are more important, such as those related to the energy transition. The budget dedicated to the research and development of autonomous cars had to be amputated in some cases to be transferred to other sectors, including that of electric motorcycle groups or batteries.

Some manufacturers also delegate these activities to companies specializing in new technologies. This is the case of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance which has teamed up with Waymo, a company belonging to Google, for the evaluation of market opportunities and on joint work in order to provide a commercial, legal and regulations for autonomous cars in France and Japan.

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