Now that self-driving car are around the corner you’ve probably realized that automakers are using different technologies and have their own visions of the future car driving. Google for example is working on a fully autonomous car since 2009 and has build his first prototype in December 2014, while Tesla is progressively taking you away from the steering wheel.

In fact, all of those approaches are defined by the SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers’) and other institutions like the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) in the US and the OICA (Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers) in France. They all have their own subtleties but are also very similar. The SEA classification system is one of the most used and integrate every scenario in 6 levels of automation.

The 6 levels of Automation

0 - No Automation
1- Driver Assistance
2 - Partial Automation
3 - Conditional Automation
4 - High Automation
5 - Full Automation

LEVEL 0 – No Automation: The driver is fully responsive of all driving task. He can be help by warning or intervention systems like ABS, ESR or collision avoidance.

LEVEL 1 – Driver Assistance:The driver can only be helped by either steering or acceleration/deceleration assistance systems. We are talking about Cruise control or Lane centering assist used separately. The driver must be ready to resume full control of the drive at any moment.

LEVEL 2 – Partial Automation: The system starts to recognize its environment and is now able to take over both steering and acceleration/deceleration control. The driver must be ready to resume full control of the drive at any moment.

LEVEL 3 – Conditional Automation: The system can now take control of the vehicle in a defined use case. It is able to recognize in which environment it can perform and must indicates the driver when it can’t like the Tesla’s autopilot system. The driver must be ready to resume full control of the drive at any moment.

LEVEL 4 – High Automation:The only difference with Level 3 is that the driver is not required to take control of the vehicle anymore. However, the system is still limited to predefined use cases. This level is already proposed by BMW’s 7 series with the Remote Control parking function.

LEVEL 5 – Full Automation:The full Automation level doesn’t require a driver anymore. The system is able to take control of the driving with no limitation whatsoever. NHTSA classification stops at level 4 and while it proposes a mix between high and full automation, it doesn’t distinguish vehicles with no human controls. Google’s last prototype is in this category.

Why automation levels are important?

Like I said in the introduction, automation levels are critical for automakers to consider in order to lead their strategies. Ford for example just announced a plan to directly mass product self-driving cars within five years. Cars will have no gas and brake pedals, no steering wheel and no driver will be required. While most constructors are following an incremental steps strategy to reach fully autonomous cars, Ford with this announcement is trying to overtake them by following the Google’s Road.

Because self-driving cars are also meant to drastically reduce car accidents (80% by 2040 according to KPMG, a consulting firm) automation levels are also very important for car insurance who needs to develop and adapt their offers regarding which car you are driving.

First fatal accident involving Tesla’s Autopilot mod

On may 7th 2016, the first fatal accident happened involving Tesla’s Autopilot mod. NHTSA is still investigating the crash to determine if there are any significant issues with Autopilot. While some Tesla users are still using the systems, it is important to keep in mind that Tesla recommends to keep your hands on wheel “Just in case”.

This is the biggest complain that I have about the actual technology. It’s still in Beta development and people are yet encouraged to use it while being ready to interact at any moment. Unless you are schizophrenic there is little chance you can comfortably drive with actual level 3 autonomous drive modes. It requires more attention than actually driving the car by yourself.

To solve that issue automakers and technology companies like Apple and Google are creating fake US cities to test these driverless cars in every situation. But for now, I would encourage you to enjoy your actual dumb car, because if you are a car enthusiast like me, you will not like the next car revolution.