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What’s the difference between driver support features and automated driving?

Technology and Business

Alice Salter

Alice Salter



In this article, we explore how self-driving cars are defined and ask: 

  • Why are autonomous driving levels important? 
  • Where on the autonomous driving scale are we right now? 
  • Are there any level 3 autonomous cars?  


While the term ‘self-driving’ might at first seem self-explanatory, it’s important to remember that not everything we refer to as an ‘autonomous vehicle’ is made equal. Where some autonomous vehicles (AVs) might be able to change lanes or merge onto the highway under a driver’s close supervision, others go as far as allowing the people in a vehicle to disengage from task of driving completely. 


It’s because of this variation that the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) decided to classify the levels of automation back in 2014. They developed a system to describe six degrees of automated driving: from zero automation to full automation 


Recently, it has even been updated as the SAE recognise that levels 0-2 are better defined as ‘driver support features.’ Level 3 and above encompass what they would now refer to as ‘automated driving features.’ This scale is vital to conversations around self-driving cars as the six levels below are now the most widely used system of classification, having become an accepted industry standard. 

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

Why are autonomous driving levels important? 

There are many reasons why this scale is proving valuable to manufacturers and self-driving enthusiasts alike. For anyone hoping to ride in an autonomous vehicle, or interested members of the public, this scale provides insight into the industry and developing technologies. By defining the human involvement needed to drive safely at each level, the potential for confusion, and ultimately accidents, is reduced. Each stage has clear guidelines and makes it easy to understand complicated tech in relation to the people inside the vehicle. 


For developers of driverless technology, the definitions within this structured scale provide guidance on the direction of progress. They provide a benchmark against which to measure the success of any new technologies too. Ultimately, this classification system helps us to measure progress, define use cases and ensure safety. However, some are now questioning whether the original, six-level scale is still fit for purpose. 




Where on the autonomous driving scale are we? 

Right now, most driverless vehicles would be referred to as Level 2. This means partial automation has been achieved, where steering and acceleration can be controlled by the vehicle, but a human driver must always be ready to take over. There are a good number of such vehicle systems on the market, including Tesla’s so-called “Autopilot”, Volvo’s Pilot Assist and Ford’s BlueCruise. 


Something of a bottleneck is now forming at this level though, as many developers are struggling to bridge the gap between this and Level 3, where the vehicle is aware of its own limitations and so a human driver doesn’t need to constantly monitor progress. This is why the term ‘Level 2+’ has emerged. Sitting somewhere in the middle, it promises an enhanced, connected experience without the pressure of making the vehicle ‘self-aware’ and all functions work without human monitoring. Sought-after self-driving features like lane control, adaptive cruise control, traffic-sign reading, highway merging and more can be delivered at this level, and it is here that commercial driverless development currently rests. 


(Photo: istockphoto.com)


Are there any level 3 autonomous cars? 

While the majority of AV projects haven’t reached Level 3 just yet, we are beginning to see some significant developments. In 2021, the first ready-to-drive Level 3 AV entered the market as Honda launched its flagship Legend model equipped with a Traffic Jam Pilot system able to control acceleration, braking and steering under certain conditions. 


Only available for lease in its Japanese home market, Honda’s reach with the Level 3 Legend is limited. Now Mercedes-Benz look set to bring the same level of autonomy to far more drivers as both its S-Class and EQS models are due to be released with Drive Pilot, the manufacturer’s Level 3 system, this year. 


Thanks to the Road Traffic Act for Level 3 systems, passed in 2017, Germany is the ideal testing ground for this technology and it’s here that Mercedes-Benz plan to launch. Initially limited to German autobahns, the Drive Pilot’s Level 3 functionality allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel as the system controls the driving speed and following distance while independently performing evasive or braking manoeuvres. Vitally, if the driver fails to take back control when prompted, the car will automatically slow to a stop, and activate its hazard lights. 

This is significant progress in the world of self-driving as Level 3 has now loomed large for some time. With this, and the next offering from competing manufacturers (which surely can’t be far off), the industry is entering a new phase of development and moving along that scale of autonomy. 2022 looks like a promising year for driverless technology. 



What do you think of the update to the SAE’s levels of autonomous driving?

Do you find these levels helpful when it comes to knowing what an AV can do?

Would you like to try out a Level 3 AV?


Share your thoughts in the comments below. 




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