What are the Six Levels of Driving Automation?

What are the Six Levels of Driving Automation?

What are the Six Levels of Driving Automation?

Driving automation is revolutionizing the automotive industry, bringing us closer to a future where vehicles can operate independently of human input. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined six levels of driving automation to classify the progression from fully manual to fully autonomous vehicles. These levels help consumers, engineers, and policymakers understand the capabilities and limitations of different systems.

Understanding these levels is crucial not only for technological advancement but also for legal considerations. For instance, as driving automation becomes more prevalent, law firms like Pyramid Legal specialize in addressing the legal implications of car accidents involving autonomous vehicles. This article will explore each level in detail, highlighting the specific features and current examples that define the journey towards full vehicle autonomy.

Level 0: No Automation

At Level 0, the vehicle has no autonomous features, and the driver is responsible for all driving tasks. This includes steering, braking, accelerating, and monitoring the environment. Even with features like warning signals or basic cruise control, the vehicle does not perform any driving functions autonomously.

Vehicles at this level are entirely dependent on human control. An example of Level 0 automation is a basic model car with no advanced driver assistance systems. Despite advancements in technology, many cars on the road today still fall under this category, relying entirely on the driver for safe operation.

Level 0 represents the starting point in the journey toward full autonomy, highlighting the complete reliance on human intervention in every aspect of driving.

Level 1: Driver Assistance

Level 1 automation introduces basic driver assistance features, which can aid in either steering or acceleration but not both simultaneously. The driver must remain fully engaged and ready to take control at any time. Examples of Level 1 technology include adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance.

Adaptive cruise control adjusts the vehicle’s speed to maintain a safe distance from the car ahead. Lane-keeping assistance helps keep the vehicle within its lane by providing gentle steering inputs. However, these systems only assist the driver rather than taking over any driving tasks entirely.

A typical example of a Level 1 vehicle is the 2018 Honda Civic, equipped with adaptive cruise control. This feature helps maintain a preset speed and safe following distance, but the driver must still steer and remain vigilant. Level 1 marks the beginning of integrating automation into vehicles, enhancing safety and convenience while keeping the driver in charge.

Level 2: Partial Automation

Level 2 automation steps up from driver assistance to partial automation, where the vehicle can control both steering and acceleration/deceleration simultaneously. However, the driver must remain attentive and be prepared to take control at any moment. This level is often referred to as “hands-off” but not “eyes-off” driving.

A prime example of Level 2 technology is Tesla’s Autopilot system. This system can change lanes, adjust speed based on traffic conditions, and even park the car autonomously. Despite these advanced features, the driver must remain engaged and ready to intervene if necessary.

Another example is the Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, which combines adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist to provide a smoother driving experience. While these systems can handle many tasks, they are limited to specific conditions, such as highways with clear lane markings.

Level 2 vehicles represent a significant leap in automation, offering greater convenience and safety features. However, the driver’s role remains crucial, as human intervention is still required to ensure safe operation under varying driving conditions.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

Level 3 automation allows vehicles to handle most driving tasks independently under certain conditions, but human intervention is still necessary when the system requests it. This level is often described as “eyes-off” driving, where the driver can engage in other activities but must be ready to take control when prompted.

A notable example of Level 3 automation is Audi’s AI Traffic Jam Pilot. This system can manage driving in congested traffic on highways, allowing the driver to relax while the car handles stop-and-go traffic. The vehicle uses a combination of sensors, cameras, and LiDAR to navigate the environment and make driving decisions. However, once traffic clears, the system alerts the driver to resume control.

Level 3 vehicles represent a significant milestone in autonomous driving. They provide a more seamless driving experience by reducing the need for constant driver attention, particularly in monotonous driving conditions. Yet, the technology’s limitations mean that drivers must still be prepared to intervene, ensuring safety remains a top priority.

Level 4: High Automation

Level 4 automation offers a more advanced form of autonomous driving, where the vehicle can operate independently in most conditions without human intervention. These systems are capable of handling driving tasks and making decisions even when the driver is not paying attention. However, human control may still be necessary in certain situations, such as off-road driving or severe weather conditions.

For example, Google’s Waymo vehicles operate at Level 4. These cars can navigate urban environments, handle complex traffic scenarios, and respond to unexpected events, all without human input. Waymo’s fleet has been extensively tested in various settings, demonstrating the capability of Level 4 automation to perform in real-world conditions.

Another instance is the Hyundai NEXO, which is being tested for Level 4 capabilities. This vehicle can manage highway driving autonomously, with the driver stepping in only when necessary. These systems use an array of sensors, including radar and cameras, to perceive the environment and make driving decisions.

Level 4 vehicles are a significant advancement toward fully autonomous driving. They reduce the reliance on human intervention, making driving safer and more convenient. However, complete autonomy is not yet achieved, and these systems still require driver readiness in specific scenarios.

Level 5: Full Automation

Level 5 automation represents the pinnacle of autonomous driving technology, where the vehicle can handle all driving tasks under any conditions without human intervention. At this level, the vehicle is entirely self-sufficient, eliminating the need for a driver.

In a Level 5 vehicle, traditional car components such as steering wheels and pedals are unnecessary. These vehicles can navigate complex urban environments, rural areas, and adverse weather conditions, all without human oversight. Currently, no commercial vehicles operate at this level, but several companies are working towards this goal.

Examples of emerging Level 5 technology include prototypes and concept cars from companies like Tesla and Waymo. These vehicles are designed to demonstrate the potential of full automation, showcasing advanced sensor arrays, artificial intelligence, and connectivity features that enable complete autonomy.

The journey to Level 5 automation is ongoing, with significant advancements being made each year. The development of this technology promises a future where driving is entirely hands-free and stress-free, marking a revolutionary shift in how we think about transportation.

Benefits and Challenges of Driving Automation

Driving automation offers numerous benefits that can transform transportation and improve road safety. However, it also presents several challenges that need to be addressed as technology advances.


  • Increased Safety: Automated systems can reduce human error, which is a significant cause of accidents. Features like collision avoidance and automatic braking enhance vehicle safety.
  • Enhanced Mobility: Autonomous vehicles can provide mobility solutions for individuals who cannot drive, such as the elderly or disabled, increasing their independence and access to transportation.
  • Traffic Efficiency: Automation can optimize traffic flow, reduce congestion, and improve fuel efficiency through coordinated driving patterns and reduced stop-and-go traffic.
  • Environmental Impact: By improving fuel efficiency and enabling more efficient driving behaviors, autonomous vehicles can contribute to lower emissions and a smaller carbon footprint.


  • Technological Limitations: Developing reliable systems that can handle all driving scenarios, including extreme weather conditions and complex urban environments, is still a significant hurdle.
  • Legal and Regulatory Issues: Establishing clear regulations and liability frameworks for autonomous vehicles is crucial. Questions about responsibility in the event of an accident remain unresolved.
  • Ethical Considerations: Autonomous vehicles must be programmed to make ethical decisions in critical situations, raising complex moral questions about programming priorities and decision-making processes.
  • Cybersecurity Risks: As vehicles become more connected and reliant on software, they are vulnerable to hacking and other cybersecurity threats, which could compromise safety and privacy.

Driving automation has the potential to revolutionize transportation, but addressing these challenges is essential to realize its full benefits. As technology continues to evolve, ongoing efforts in research, regulation, and public engagement will be vital in navigating the path to fully autonomous driving.


Understanding the six levels of driving automation is crucial as we move towards a future dominated by autonomous vehicles. These levels, defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), range from fully manual (Level 0) to fully autonomous (Level 5). Each level represents a step forward in integrating technology into driving, enhancing safety, convenience, and efficiency.

As we progress through these levels, the role of the driver shifts from being fully responsible for all driving tasks to becoming a passive passenger in a fully autonomous vehicle. While significant advancements have been made, particularly at Levels 2 and 3, the journey towards full automation continues to present both exciting opportunities and significant challenges.

The development and deployment of autonomous vehicles will require ongoing collaboration between automakers, technology companies, regulators, and the public. By understanding these levels and their implications, we can better prepare for and shape the future of transportation.