The 5 steps to autonomy

How close are we to dispensing with a driver? Here’s the real road map to self-piloted vehicles

LEVEL 1 A SINGLE ASPECT IS AUTOMATED

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has created a lexicon of autonomy. Level 1, the most basic type, is where one element of the task of driving is taken over in isolation, using data from sensors and cameras, but the driver is very much still in control. Such systems originated in the late 1990s at Mercedes, with its pioneering radar-managed cruise control, while Honda introduced lane-keep assist on the 2008 Legend. These were the first steps towards removing some of the driver’s duties behind the wheel. L E5V E L

LEVEL 2 COMPUTERS CONTROL TWO OR MORE ELEMENTS

Level 2 autonomy is where we are today: computers take over multiple functions from the driver – and are intelligent enough to weave speed and steering systems together using multiple data sources. Mercedes says it’s been doing this for four years. The company’s updated S-Class (due here Q4) is Level 2-point-something.

It takes over directional, throttle and brake functions in one of the most advanced cruise control systems yet seen – using detailed sat-nav data to brake automatically for corners ahead, keeping a set distance from the car in front and setting off again when jams clear, while the driver sits idle.

LEVEL 3 THE CAR TAKES CONTROL OF SAFETYCRITICAL FUNCTIONS

Highly automated vehicles are not far off.

The SAE calls Level 3 – ‘conditional automation’ a specific mode that handles all aspects of driving for you, but crucially the driver must be on hand to respond to a request to intervene. Audi calls its new A8, due this spring, a Level 3 autonomous car – meaning the car has the potential to drive itself in certain circumstances, in which it will assume control of all safety-critical functions. How? By refining maps, radar and sensors and fusing this environmental data with ever-smarter and faster processors and logic. Today’s assumption of a twosecond comms lag will soon look very slow.

LEVEL 4 FULLY AUTONOMOUS IN CONTROLLED AREAS

Early next decade cars will fully drive themselves in geofenced metropolitan areas, as HD mapping, more timely data, car-to-car comms and off-site call centres (to deal with unusual hazards) improve accuracy. “You won’t really need the driver at Level 4,” says Merc’s autonomous guru Christoph von Hugo.

“The likelihood is you will just be renting the car, rather than owning it. You won’t take this car on vacation to Florida but you’ll take it on an urban journey around New York, say. It is easier to have ultradetailed mapping for carefully defined areas.”

Twenty car makers say they’ll sell autonomous cars in the US by 2022.

LEVEL 5 FULLY AUTONOMOUS ANYWHERE. DRIVER OPTIONAL

The difference between Level 4 and 5 is simple: the last step towards full automation doesn’t require the car to be in the so-called ‘operational design domain’. Rather than operating in a carefully managed (usually urban) environment with lots of dedicated lane markings or infrastructure, it’ll be able to self-drive anywhere. How?

Because the frequency and volume of data, and the sophistication of the computers crunching it, will mean the cars are sentient. It’s a brave new world – one that Google’s Waymo car is gunning to be first into, leapfrogging traditional manufacturers’ efforts.

The disruption will be huge: analysts IHS forecast 21 million autonomous vehicles globally by 2035.