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    Autonomous Vehicle Essentials Part One: Levels of Automation

    Steering wheel

    Autonomous vehicles are likely to be among the most disruptive technologies the industry will face in the coming years, according to a panel of researchers, technologists and transportation industry executives who spoke at the Lytx User Group Conference (UGC) in San Diego.

    Of the many issues facing the sector, “this is top of mind,” said panelist Scott Perry, chief technology and procurement officer of Ryder System, Inc.’s Fleet Management Solutions business.

    It’s top of mind for Lytx, too, as we’re already seeing automated technologies – like collision mitigation systems -- influence driver behavior; some are adapting well, appropriately using automated technology to augment their skills, while others are allowing it to take the place of good, attentive driving. We’re doing the heavy lifting of helping drivers evolve their safe driving behavior to track with evolving technology. 

    To help lay the background, this first blog post in a two-part series covers the basics about automated technologies and how they’re expected to escalate through levels to full automation.

    “It’s not a question of how and when, but how quickly” autonomous vehicle technologies will edge their way into fleets, highlighting a growing sense of urgency being felt across the industry, Kary Schaefer, general manager of marketing and strategy for Daimler Trucks North America, told a ballroom packed with 300+ Lytx UGC attendees.

    Levels of automation: An introduction to autonomous vehicles

    The key to participating in the debate is an understanding of the levels of automation being discussed, Schaefer said. The established classifications are expressed in levels, and they go from zero to five, with Level 5 being fully automated vehicles that require very little human intervention. Here’s the report that features the chart from SAE International, an association of engineers and technical experts in aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industries, defining those levels: 

    Source: SAE International

    Most vehicles currently on the road today are at Level 0. Many new consumer models coming out this year will have some Level 1 function-specific technologies, each designed to accomplish a specific function, such as cruise control or crash-avoidance systems. 

    Level 2 is achieved when the car combines two or more driving functions. In addition, the car is capable of steering and throttling itself, but the driver remains in control. Technically, the driver can now take her hands off the wheel during parts of the journey that don’t require lane changes, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration currently requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheels at all times. 

    In Level 3 automation, the automation system becomes a “co-pilot,” taking over the job of monitoring the environment, in addition to throttling and steering. The driver of a Level Three vehicle must be alert and be able to take over the vehicle as a fallback. Now the vehicle can perform lane changes and pass another vehicle.

    At Level 4, the driver can cede control for part of the journey to, for example, connect with dispatch to iron out trip logistics. The vehicle is able to perform all safety-critical driving tasks, but drivers will need to remain alert and able to take control of the vehicle during certain driving modes or when something unexpected pops up.

    Finally, Level 5 calls for fully autonomous vehicles capable of going from point A to point B without driver intervention.

    In the next post, we cover how our panelists believe autonomous vehicle technologies will affect drivers, fleets and the transportation industry as a whole.