Self-driving, autonomous cars occupy a weird space in the modern, American psyche. To some, they’re part of a futuristic, Utopian vision of safer, cleaner vehicles that could fundamentally change the nature of transportation ownership for the better. To others, they represent a bleak and soulless tomorrow that will see entire industries gutted, leaving millions unemployed. To others still, it seems like they’ve already been around a while, in some form or another, and nobody really seems to care– and that’s where things tend to get tricky and people start asking questions. As such, we’ve decided to answer a few of the most common questions that have come up about self-driving cars in our first “ Explainer”. Enjoy!


Level 0 | Zero Automation

This is, perhaps, the easiest level of autonomous car to understand. Simply, this is a purely analog car with an accelerator pedal that is physically attached to a cable that’s physically attached to a throttle body somewhere that opens up and allows an engine to suck in more air and fuel. There’s a clutch pedal, too– and any braking or steering assistance is provided by a mechanical vacuum or hydraulic pump, as opposed to an electric motor.

The car goes when you stomp a pedal, turns when you turn a wheel, and stops when you stomp the brakes, ONLY. If things get hairy and sideways there is no one– or no thing– there to save you.

So, while this is probably the easiest level of vehicle autonomy to understand, it is probably the most unfamiliar to our readers. I mean, think about it: when was the last time you saw a car that was completely manually operated? Name a car built in the last two decades that wasn’t at least available with an electronic, anti-lock braking system. How about something as basic as cruise control? Heck, most cars today can be had with a traction control system that would have made headlines if they’d debuted on a mid-90s era Formula 1 car. Even that Oldsmobile Cutlass coupe up there had an automatic transmission AND cruise control, in 1982!


Level 1 | Automation to Handle the Emergencies

While Level 0 autonomy is probably the most conceptually familiar level of autonomy to most of us, Level 1 is the one that’s most actually familiar. This is where most modern cars live today, with those “parking sensors” feeding data to a distance-keeping cruise control and emergency braking controlling the going and stopping while advanced, sensor-driven traction control systems use electronically-controlled braking and torque-vectoring systems to mimic the type of steering inputs necessary to keep the car from sliding or spinning out in the rain and snow.

Keep in mind, we’re not talking about high-end, super-expensive luxury car stuff here. This is all technology that can be had on even budget-branded products from the likes of Hyundai and Kia. It’s technology that comes into play in that critical 0.001% of the time that we’re driving in the most extreme conditions and, most importantly, it is technology that we already trust to intervene when we need it most.


Level 2 | Automation to Handle the Really Annoying Bits

We’ve come to understand the “zero automation” cars of the past and the “driver’s assistant” cars of today, I think. So, here, we can begin talking about the kind of cars that most people think of when they say “autonomous cars”. These are vehicles that use adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping systems to “take over” for drivers on long, boring road trips when their minds might start to wander. Vehicles that can read traffic signs, slow down and speed up to match posted speed limits, and– once you get to where you’re going– might even park itself for you.

If you’ve been driving high-end luxury cars from manufacturers like Acura or Mercedes-Benz or Volvo in recent years, this will all sound very familiar. In fact, this is about the level that Tesla’s Autopilot software operates at (more on that in a minute), in the sense that the car will keep on keeping on the highway it’s on, responding to other cars’ movements and such.

These cars are pretty advanced, then, but the driver is still ultimately responsible for the car’s actions.


Level 3 | Automation to Handle the Mild Inconveniences

Audi claims its newest Audi A8 is the first vehicle to offer Level 3 automation. At Level 3, the driver can take their attention off the road for extended periods of time while the software takes over all of the vehicle’s longitudinal and lateral controls. All of the stopping, going, and turning, in other words. Here, the driver only takes over in situations where highly detailed digital maps either don’t or can’t exist (think “country roads” or “new construction”).

At this stage, the driver is probably still legally responsible for what happens, but the car is really the one monitoring the trucks, cars, bikes, people, and animals on your route, and the car is making big decisions almost all of the time. When it works, it looks like this …

Volvo Autonomous Drive

… but, when it doesn’t …

Tesla Model S Crash on Autopilot

… and people start to mistrust and fear autonomous cars. You start to see stories sensationalizing crashes like this one, from last year. Or, worse, exploiting some of the fatal Autopilot crashes Teslas have been involved in in recent years for their own purposes. And that, dear friends, brings me to another point: Tesla’s Autpilot really isn’t Autopilot.

I know, I know– we’re venturing into some pretty dangerous op-ed territory whenever we mention Tesla in any light harsher than a soft, 30 watt glow. But, hear me out.

See, Tesla’s Autopilot may be called Autopilot and may be touted by the most faithful of believers as a Level 3, self-driving car– but that’s not what Tesla says. On their site, it reads, “All new Tesla cars come standard with advanced hardware capable of providing Autopilot features today, and full self-driving capabilities in the future– through software updates designed to improve functionality over time.”

So, is a Tesla Model S running on Autopilot a Level 2 autonomous car, or a level 3 autonomous car? With the advent of the latest “Hardware 3” processor– the first pictures of which were posted on Electrek just hours ago, by the way— the cars may have the ability to generate those “highly detailed digital maps” in something approaching real time. According to Tesla, it represents a factor of 21 improvement in frame per second processing versus the previous generation Tesla Autopilot hardware. If you’re doing the math, that’s 2,300 frames per second, with calculations on depth, speed, and distance happening at 144 trillion times per second. That’s, like– a lot!

If Tesla can pull that off, the company may have skipped Level 3 automation completely and gone from– let’s call it “Level 2.5”– right to Level 4 automation, leap-frogging Audi, Porsche, and just about everyone else in the process! All of which very naturally leads us to …


Level 4 | Automation to Handle Your Commute

At this level of automation, your car still has a steering wheel, but you probably haven’t used it in a while. In fact, you may even be able to push it aside to make room for a book, a laptop, or an ottoman to elevate your tired feet. All you really need to do is hop on your nav screen, enter in your destination, and let the car handle everything from pulling out of the parking space to finding one when you get there. You, meanwhile, are reading, texting, or (most likely) checking your work emails. You’re too busy to be bothered by any of that actual driving!

This is the self-driving car of near-future science fiction TV and movies, and also the version of autonomy most people probably think of when they say something like, “autonomous cars are coming”.

So, Level 4 is the one that’s going to get people really excited. It’s also very much the level of automation that’s going to get a lot of people really unemployed, too. In the US alone, there are almost 3.5 million professional truck drivers. That’s according to estimates by the American Trucking Association, who also count the total number of people employed in the industry– dispatchers, schedulers, HR reps, and others– at more than 8.7 million. That’s 8.7 million people who will find themselves unemployed just about the minute it becomes more cost-effective to pay for a new, robot truck vs. a new, human driver.


Level 5 | Automation to Think for You

At Level 5 automation, your input is no longer needed. The car is more than capable of being told where to go, and finding its way there. In extreme cases, a Level 5 autonomous car would even detect if you, for example, lost consciousness. It would then be able to decide if it should cal for help, or just take you to the ambulance on its own– maybe even while it calls for help. Oh– and, while it’s making decisions like that, it’s also driving more safely and more efficiently than you can. Heck, it probably doesn’t even have a steering wheel.

We’re not just talking about, “your input is no longer needed” here, then. At Level 5, we’re talking like, “dude, your input is no longer welcome” … and that, that may be OK. To understand why I think that’s probably OK, though, it’s important to realize two thing that are fundamentally true about driving.

The first truth is that being a good driver on real life, public roads isn’t about car control or depth perception or quick-thinking– even though those things are important– being a good driver is about being predictable. It’s about NOT suddenly making a left-hand turn from the far-right lane and NOT panic-braking at the end of a freeway on-ramp because you forgot to merge and NOT going out of order at four-way stop because you’re trying to be nice. Safe driving isn’t just about you, in other words. It’s about how other vehicles react to your actions. And, frankly, if we were all following the same set of rules the same way at the same time, I don’t think there would be nearly as many car accidents as there are. So, that’s the first thing.

The second truth is that you already kind of know that, when things go sideways, the computer is a better driver than you. You’ve known it for a long time, too– especially if you had one of those 80s Oldsmobiles with an automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, and cruise control. You know, basic stuff that shifts more smoothly than you, stops with more confidence and control than you, and maintains speed more efficiently than you, too.

And, not just you. Me, too. All of us. And that technology is just getting better every day, I think– what about you guys? Is the self-driving car going to save us all, or doom us to an even fatter, dumber existence? Or, like, is it just gonna be another button on the dash that no one ever uses, like Volvo’s parallel-parking app? Scroll down to the comments and let us know.


Volvo 360c Autonomous Concept

Original content for, with inspiration from Paul Tan.