Level 5 is enough – for now

Levels of autonomous driving is at the heart on most discussions on future road systems.

The SAE classification of 5 levels of autonomy is currently the best bet for detailed discussions. But given such systems, why do predictions on when and how to reach autonomous driving vary so wildly? The reason is, I believe, found in 2 different interpretations on what Level 5 actually means. Let’s look at the classification.

This classification makes a lot of sense. 3 levels (0-2) where a human monitors the driving environment, and 3 levels (3-5) where incrementally advanced systems are put in charge. The levels are further elaborated in the following table.

Here the division labour between human and system is made explicit. And this is a beautiful model. But there is a problem: Even with this level of precision of description, we still have an extreme gap in predictions on the advent of Level 5 vehicles. Some say 2018, some say 2030-40, and some say this might neven happen.

The truth, though, is that Level 5 is already here. There are plenty of systems currently undergoing technical trials without the possibility of driver interference. Vehicles without pedals and steering wheel are clearly Level 5 because all aspect of driving from start to finish are carried out by machines. The confusion arises because there is another interpretation of Level5. A ‘hardcore’ interpretation that replaces a human driver in all thinkable circumstances. In this interpretation, fully automated driving is only realized when cars can negotiate any kind of terrain in any kind of situation where a human driver might possible succeed in pushing a car through. This include driving on the beach (no map), driving in extreme weather, and driving through war zones.

Let me propose that this interpretation, commonly known as ‘Anytime – anywhere’ will be labelled Level6. Level6 driving may indeed be some time into the future. Level5 is not.

Present day systems already operate at Level5, albeit restricted to environments with a high degree of familiarity to them. For now, that is what we need. For now, Level5 is enough.