(Photo: unsplash.com)

Autonomous driving explained

Technology and Business

Raven Brookes

Raven Brookes



What do we mean when we talk about driverless cars, self-driving cars or what some people call automated driving or autonomous driving?

Are we talking about vehicles that drive themselves, without a human on board? Or do we mean vehicles that merely take over some things that humans do now, like braking and steering?

Now, achieving a world in which fully autonomous driving is commonplace will not happen overnight. It will be a slow process, through which the cars gradually evolve to drive themselves piece-by-piece, with less-and-less need for human interaction. Therefore, we need different terms for the different levels of automation.

This is an overview of each of those


Five levels of autonomous driving

In 2014, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) created six definitions that describe different levels of automation. As you can see from the table below, the SAE assigns a ‘zero’ to no automation, although most modern cars operate with a driver assistance system of some sort, making ‘zero’ unusual. 

Level 5 means full automation (cars that drive themselves, without needing a driver on board). The other levels sit between these two extremes.

Unfortunately, not every institution agrees exactly with the SAE. The good news is that there is a lot of overlap between the definitions of all major automotive associations. The following table sets out the different levels of automation.

Autonomous driving explained infographic
(Photo: 2025ad.com)

Our definitions of autonomous driving

At 2025AD, we use the following definitions:

  • Level 4: “fully automated driving” (in certain driving scenarios)
  • Level 5: “driverless”, “autonomous” or “self-driving”    

We do this to distinguish whether or not a driver will be needed on board to intervene, or not.



Autonomous driving level 4 explained

We are sure level 4 is achievable by the year 2025 (hence our name). At level 4, the human driver can hand over full control to the vehicle in certain situations. For example, the driver could watch TV while cruising down the motorway without ‘driving’, because the vehicle is doing this itself.

However, at level 4, the human driver must be in the vehicle, ready to intervene should they need to. The human driver can also hit an ‘off-button’ at level 4 and drive manually.



Autonomous driving level 5 in explained

Level 5 vehicles drive themselves, without needing humans on board. Like most experts, we do not see this being achieved within the next 15 years. We know that some low-speed tests have taken place on private roads, but this does not mean it will happen on public roads soon.

(Photo: istockphoto.com)

Different terms for autonomous driving

Not everyone agrees with us. Some of our interview partners, guest authors, users and people quoted from other sources may define autonomous driving slightly differently from 2025AD. We aim to make this clear in all our articles.




Related stories

Welcome to 2025AD – the platform for autonomous driving

Welcome to 2025AD – the platform for autonomous driving

Clock 7 minutes
How autonomous driving can make our roads safer

How autonomous driving can make our roads safer

Clock 1 minute minutes


<div id="hs_cos_wrapper_Engage_" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_widget hs_cos_wrapper_type_inline_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="widget" data-hs-cos-type="inline_text" data-hs-cos-field="submit_your_story.icon_text">Letter</div>
Submit your story

Become part of our automated revolution and submit your stories, images and videos

Submit your story
Stay informed

Stay up to speed with our mailing list. Enjoy automated driving content direct to your inbox

Join our weekly briefing
Connect with us

Follow us on our social networks for up to date information and thoughts on automated driving