Autonomous Trucking,Industry News/Regulations

As mentioned in an earlier blog, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) recently came out with their “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.” This guideline (not regulation) is designed to help the agency get a handle on automated and autonomous vehicle development and help ensure the safe development and deployment of these technologies.

Note the key words - automated and autonomous. You may wonder, what’s the difference? I’m with you…I wondered too!

Referencing my favorite source for definitions,, it becomes clear why the use of both terms. “Automated” is defined as “to operate and control by automation.” (Don’t you just love definitions that require another definition to make it clear?!) “Automation” is the “technique, method, of operating controlling a process by highly automatic means, as by electronic devices, reducing human intervention to a minimum.” So an “automated” approach to something reduces human intervention…but it doesn’t eliminate human intervention. An automated function still needs you or I somewhere in the operational equation. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, maybe both, depending on the situation that arises.

“Autonomous” on the other hand, in reference to vehicles is defined as “navigated and maneuvered by a computer without the need for human control or intervention under normal road conditions.” In this case, autonomous means driverless – “not having a human driver in control.” Thus, an autonomous vehicle is really the same as a driverless vehicle. This can get confusing in the outside real (non-engineering) world. Often, terms like autonomous functions, autonomous vehicles and driverless vehicles are used to try to differentiate levels of functionality – from driver involvement most of the time, some of the time or none of the time. The reality is, however, that driverless and autonomous are pretty much synonyms. Functions that involve the driver are really automated functions. So driver assistance systems today are really automated, not autonomous, functions – the driver still needs to be involved.

So now that we’ve cleared up the terminology, let’s talk about the title of this blog – “Why Five?”

In the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy the NHTSA has defined 5 levels of automation, based on the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) J3016 “Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems.” In case you were wondering about those 5 levels, here they are:

  • Level 0 = Human driver does everything.
  • Level 1 = Automated system can sometimes assist human driver and conduct some parts of driving task.
  • Level 2 = Automated system can actually conduct some parts of the driving task, human monitors environment; human driver must take back control when system requests.
  • Level 3 = Automated system conducts some part of driving task AND monitors environment in some instances; human driver must take back control when system requests.
  • Level 4 = Automated system can conduct the driving task AND monitors environment; human driver need not take back control; system can only operate in certain environments and under certain conditions.
  • Level 5 = Automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that human driver can perform them.

In levels 0-2, the human driver monitors the environment. In levels 3-5, the “automated driving system (‘system’) monitors the driving environment.”

Alright, there are actually 6 levels, but level 0, where the human driver does everything, really means that there are no automated functions on the vehicle. Think of any vehicle prior to the introduction of cruise control (which could be considered a level 1 system) and you’ll know where I’m coming from. (My mind goes to a 1965 Mustang “R” code – but that’s a discussion for another time and place!)

So 5 levels of automation. You know what? That’s way too many levels. These levels might good for engineers and may show a progression towards true driverless vehicles, but it’s confusing. If we start using it to describe our systems to a curious public (our vehicle features a level 3 system) it’s just going to create more and more questions.

Plus, these levels mean that there are various levels of driver involvement. Think of some of the videos we’ve seen where the driver is able to turn his chair away from the wheel and work on his tablet, letting the system cruise on down the roadway. What happens if the driver needs to get back involved? Oh, that’s easy, the system politely asks the driver to get back involved and take over control. I’ll bet it will even vibrate the chair if the driver has decided not to work and take a little snooze. I know that I’m ready to take control in a situation when I wake up from a nap – don’t you? (Yes, sarcasm was intended.)

In my mind, there are only two levels – driver-involved or driverless. The driver either has to ready to take over in any situation if the system has even a minimal need for the human driver. This would cover levels 1 through 4. Even level 4 autonomy will need a driver to be involved. Only level 5 is truly driverless. Thus, all we need is two to describe the system – driver-involved or driverless.

Why is this important? Take a look at YouTube and see the videos of people doing crazy things with what they perceive as autonomous technologies. Sitting in the backseat and letting the car drive down the road, or reading, texting, even watching movies while the car is driving itself. Or even commercial vehicle videos of trucks with automated technologies where the driver can move away from observing the roadway and do something else. This is really scary, but probably not too surprising. We’re Americans, we like to take risks and push the envelope. Give us a little automation and we’ll push it to the limits. We don’t adhere, we abuse. And it’s all fun and cool, until someone gets killed because the overplayed the system or got the impression that the system does more than it’s capable of doing from an ad, a name, a sales person or the media.

We, as an industry, have to communicate clearly that, until we get to driverless, the driver is still involved in vehicle operation. There are not 5 levels of automation, there are only 2. It’s simple. It’s easy. And, quite frankly, it will probably save lives.

If ”driver-involved” and “driverless” are too simplistic for our tech-savvy times, we can use some fancier words - it’s either automated or autonomous!

Quite frankly, I’m for “driver-involved” or “driverless”…with these words I don’t have to check, or my Funk & Wagnall’s, to be sure!

(Yes, you can look up “Funk & Wagnall’s” on the internet if you need too!)

Bendix Blog

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