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Levels of autonomous cars explained

  • May 22, 2022
  • 3 min read
Levels of autonomous cars explained

The UK government is proposing changes to the Highway Code as part of the move towards autonomous cars. The proposed changes, published in April 2022, even include letting drivers watch TV once fully self-driving cars are on the road, though using mobile phones will still not be allowed. The driver still needs to be on standby to take over in an emergency. It is also confirmed that drivers will not be held responsible for a crash, with the burden falling to insurance companies.

But we are a long way off from that. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has different levels for self-driving cars depending on the machine’s abilities.

Level 1 is the most basic of all and your car may already have it. This is where one element of the drive is taken over, using cameras or sensors. This could be lane-keep assist or auto cruise control. The driver is still very much in control. This tech has been around since at least the late 1990s where it premiered on some Mercedes and Lexus models.

Level 2 takes it a step further and it’s where a few cars are at today. Computers take over multiple functions including speed and lane positioning. This also includes self-parking features. The latest Mercedes S-Class is one example. It can take over the steering, as well as acceleration and deceleration. Its sat-nav also predicts the road ahead and brakes in preparation for a bend coming up, all while maintaining the distance with the car in front and moving off in traffic. As with level 1, the driver is still needed and some cars monitor their level of focus.

Level 3 is not far away. This is known as “conditional automation.” This does all aspects of driving for you but again, you still need to be ready to intervene when requested. Audi says that the new A8 is at this level.

Level 4 hopes to be here by the middle of this decade. Cars are expected to fully drive themselves in urban  metropolitan areas, communicate with other cars as well as call centres, and deal with unusual and unexpected hazards on the way. This is the first stage where the driver can be ‘hands off.’

Finally, there is level 5, the last step towards full automation. This doesn’t even need a steering wheel. Instead of working in an urban environment with lane markings and dedicated infrastructure, it will be able to drive anywhere. This is thanks to the data it receives as well as the sophistication of the computer processing it. It “will mean the cars are sentient” according to CAR’s Tim Pollard. “It’s a brave new world.”

With all the ethical concerns as well as the cries of driving purists, it’s clear with the proposed changes in the Highway Code that the ‘gleaming alloy air car,’ as the band Rush once described it, is on its way to push the Red Barchetta out of the way. 

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Fahad Redha

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