Autonomous Vehicles | The 5 Levels of Autonomy
Dr. Evangelo Damigos; PhD | Head of Digital Futures Research Desk
- Electric Vehicles
- Emerging Technologies
Publication | Update: Sep 2020
Even without autonomous capabilities, Level 0 marks an important milestone, because it indicates the presence of sensors and electronics to improve driver performance. Informational ADAS provides surround-view and rear-view cameras, while machine vision can help identify dangerous situations and warn drivers with features such as a front camera with lane-departure warning, ultrasonic park assistance, and blind-spot detection radar.
According to Hannes Estl, sector general manager of ADAS, Texas Instruments, at Level 0, all systems can be independent and perform their tasks without significant data transfer between them. Slow-speed data interfaces like Controller Area Network (CAN) are usually sufficient. Video for informational ADAS is only displayed for the driver but not used for machine vision.
All data processing and algorithms for machine vision are performed on the edge (at the sensor’s location) or in a dedicated electronic control unit (ECU) with application processors selected for the necessary performance.
Given that drivers must observe their environment and stay in control of the car at all times, the loss of ADAS functionality would not lead to immediate danger. The systems’ erratic behavior and false alarms should still be avoided, as they can distract drivers and lead to undesired reactions.
Because the systems operate independently, no real synergy occurs between them.
1: Driver Assistance:
At this driver-assistance level most functions are still controlled by the driver, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the car. Many new cars now come equipped with sensors and advanced electronics that give drivers audible warnings when they’re crossing lanes or following too closely.
The various sensor systems can still be independent, with completely local processing and decision-making, but they will need to connect to other ECUs in the car in order to issue commands for acceleration and steering. The amount of data is still small and does not require more than CAN interfaces, for example. One sensor type is often sufficient to perform a given Level 1 function.
On the edge with little to no influence from other systems. Algorithms become more complex because they control certain driving functions.
Safety requirements increase because the ADAS can perform driving operations without the driver initiating or controlling them. Incorrect operation may now lead to dangerous situations or accidents.
No significant difference from Level 0: systems operate independently without sharing information or data.
2: Partly Automated Vehicle
Semi-autonomous driving assistance systems, such as the Steering and Lane Control Assistant including Traffic Jam Assistant, make daily driving much easier. They can brake automatically, accelerate and, unlike level 1, take over steering. at least one driver assistance system of both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment is automated, like cruise control and lane-centering. It means that the "driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time. But drivers are always ready to take the control.
A coordinated effort between different sensors and ECUs makes data connections between all ECUs necessary, as well as a central entity that makes the final decision and issues control commands. The data shared is typically object data and does not need high-bandwidth interfaces.
Image processing and object identification can still occur at the sensor’s location, but a single entity combines the data from the different sources and makes decisions. Optimized processor technologies typically handle the different processing tasks.
Safety requirements at the sensor modules remain the same or can be slightly lower than in the previous level as driving decisions or control of driving functions are not made in the sensor module. The central decision-making unit has higher safety requirements because of the control it has over the car. In fault or unexpected conditions, the system is designed to transfer control back to the driver immediately.
Using data from different sensors allows more robust decision-making and helps overcome the shortcomings of individual sensor types. As long as processing occurs at the sensor location, only a limited set of data is available at the central decision-making unit.
3: Highly Automated Vehicle
In this step, we are still in the game. Anytime needed, we can intervene for driving. We still need to monitor the car and way of driving. This step give drivers more freedom to completely turn their attention away from the road under certain conditions. Drivers will be able to hand over complete control to the car system. With highly automated systems, the car will be able to drive autonomously over long distances in certain traffic situations, such as on motorways. The driver, however, must be able to take over control within a few seconds, such as at road construction sites.
With the number and types of sensors increasing, a different system topology becomes viable. Sensor modules without local processing are smaller, require less power and cost less. Because the sensor data is not processed at the sensor location, high-bandwidth, low-latency interfaces become necessary.
With raw data coming from sensors, the central ECU must have sufficient performance and optimized processors to handle image processing, object identification and classification, sensor fusion, and decision-making.
Requirements increase again at this level with so much of the processing moving into the central ECU, as well as the fact that the system can’t immediately return control to the driver. Some sensor or processing functions need to maintain functionality even under fault conditions to safely hand control back to the driver in a defined time frame.
Most or all sensor data goes a central location without data loss or alteration from pre-processing in the sensor modules, enabling a maximum of synergies during the process of sensor data fusion.
4: Fully Automated Vehicle
Human driver can still request control, and the car still has a cockpit. In level 4, the car can handle the majority of driving situations independently. The technology in step 4 is developed to the point that a car can handle highly complex urban driving situations, such as the sudden appearance of construction sites, without any driver intervention. The driver, however, must remain fit to drive and capable of taking over control if needed, yet the driver would be able to sleep temporarily. If the driver ignores a warning alarm, the car has the authority to move into safe conditions, for example by pulling over. While level 4 still requires the presence of a driver, cars won’t need drivers at all in the next, final level of autonomous driving.
5: Full Automation- No need for a driver
Unlike levels 3 and 4, the “Full Automation” of level 5 is where true autonomous driving becomes a reality: Drivers don’t need to be fit to drive and don’t even need to have a license. The car performs any and all driving tasks – there isn’t even a cockpit. Everyone in the car is a passenger. Cars at this level will clearly need to meet stringent safety demands, and will only drive at relatively low speeds within populated areas. They are also able to drive on highways but initially, they will only be used in defined areas of city centres.
This refers to a fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle's performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario—including extreme environments like dirt roads that are unlikely to be navigated by driverless vehicles in the near future.
In addition to the sensors needed to perceive its immediate surroundings, Levels 4 and 5 require a way to determine the car’s current location with precision GPS, along a map to identify the best route and the ability to connect to other sources of real-time information through 4G or 5G, WiFi, and/or V2X, a car’s connection to the outside world. Most sensors will focus on high-resolution data acquisition and/or the processing of that data, while mission planning and decision-making occur in a central location. Mission-critical functions must operate even under fault conditions.
In addition to handling all driving functions, the vehicle now handles route planning and execution as well.
Without a driver to take over (there might not even be a steering wheel), the vehicle must safely operate under all road and weather conditions as well as during faults in the system itself. Fail-safe is not sufficient anymore; reliable operation during a failure is needed for mission-critical functions.
In addition to the data from its own sensors, the system also connects to external data from a GPS, various cloud-based services through 4G or 5G, or other vehicles and infrastructure (WiFi/V2X).
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