Understanding SAE automated driving – levels 0 to 5 explained

By Jonathan Dyble
The autonomous vehicle market is receiving increasing amounts of attention, with both traditional automakers and leading innovators from the tech field...

The autonomous vehicle market is receiving increasing amounts of attention, with both traditional automakers and leading innovators from the tech field weighing into one of the most revolutionary markets of the next decade.

Research and development has accounted for billions of dollars, so much so that ABI Research has forecast that the year 2025 will see eight million autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles with SAE level 3, 4 or 5 capabilities sold.

“With the rapid development and deployment of various Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) packages by OEMs, higher level automation represents the next suitable step,” says Shiv Patel, Research Analyst at ABI Research. 

SAE, standing for the Society of Automotive Engineers, determines the intelligence level and automation capabilities of vehicles, ranking through 0 to 5.

From fully manual to fully autonomous capabilities, here is a guide to what each SAE level 0-5 represents.

Level 0: Fully manual vehicle

Level 0 accounts for the majority of vehicles on the road today, with all aspects of driving being fully human and manually controlled.

Level 1: One single automated aspect

Level 1 is the lowest level of automation. Hardly being described as driverless, the vehicle has a single aspect of automation that assists the driver with ADAS. Examples of this include steering, speed, or braking control, but never more than one of these.

See also:

Level 2: Automated steering and acceleration capabilities

SAE level 2 is where the vehicle is able to control both the steering and acceleration/ deceleration ADAS capabilities. Although this allows the vehicle to automate certain parts of the driving experience, the driver remains in complete control of the vehicle at all times. Examples of level 2 include helping vehicles to stay in lanes and self-parking features, with more than one ADAS aspect.

Level 3: Environment detection

Able to detect the environment around them, level 3 vehicles contain the lowest-tier system that is classified as an automated driving system as opposed to a manual system. With this more advanced technology, level 3 vehicles can make informed decisions for themselves such as overtaking slower moving vehicles. However, unlike the higher rated autonomous vehicles, human override is required when the machine is unable to execute the task at hand or the system fails.

Level 4: No human interaction required

The key difference between level 3 and level 4 automation is that level 4 vehicles are able to intervene themselves if things go wrong or there is a system failure. In this sense, these cars are left completely to their own devices without any human intervention in the vast majority of situations, although the option to manually override does remain in difficult or preferable circumstances.

Level 5: Human driving is completely eliminated

Similarly, level 5 vehicles do not require human attention. However, the key difference is the quality, with level 5 vehicles providing a much more responsive and refined service, comparable to that of adaptive and situational manual human driving.

Examples of where level 5 vehicles excel include off-road driving and other terrains that Level 4 vehicles may not necessarily be able to detect or intelligently comprehend. In other words, level 5 vehicles have a much more advanced environment detection system.

This is the only class of automated vehicles that does not featuring typical driving controls such as steering wheels, gas and brake pedals, or other, with the driver eliminated completely.

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