Audi’s recent announcement that its 2019 A8 sedan would have a Level 3 automated driving system gave new legs to the debate over whether Level 3 vehicles are safer than Level 1 or 2 vehicles. Some say we skip Level 3 altogether and move straight to Level 4 and 5 while others say it’s the logical next step. Just like many topics we encounter on the road to autonomy, the answer isn’t clear cut.
Back in January 2014, SAE International, the organization of aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industry engineers, issued a set of definitions classifying six stages of autonomy (see their chart below). The U.S. Department of Transportation defined autonomy in five stages for a while but thankfully scrapped it in October 2016 and adopted the SAE standards.
Think F40, a “bugeye” Sprite or even most lower-end cars today and you have Level 0. In the Levels 1 and 2, the driver remains in control of the vehicle, but the vehicle can assist or perform some tasks like warn you when you change lanes without signaling or maintain a safe cruising distance. In Levels 4 and 5, the vehicle can do all the driving so you can fall asleep or watch the Godfather trilogy.
Level 3 occupies a bit of a grey area where the vehicle can do the driving in certain situations but the driver is expected to be ready to retake control of the vehicle at all times. That means the driver must at least pay attention even if he isn’t steering, accelerating or braking. The “handover” has caused no shortage of angst and debate in the AV community.
A hitter in baseball has about 0.434 seconds to hit a 95 mph fastball. A hockey goalie has about 0.45 seconds to stop a 90 mph slap shot from the blueline. A vehicle traveling at 55 mph takes about 4.6 seconds to travel the length of a football field. And an engineer from a certain car company with a bad case of sleep inertia can take about 900.00 seconds to wake up. (Sleep inertia describes that foggy feeling after you’ve just woken up and your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders yet. The time it lasts varies from person to person.)
All kidding aside, the point is things happen fast and it isn’t a given that you have the ability to redirect your attention in the time you need to respond to a stimulus, like when a Level 3 vehicle encounters a situation it can’t handle and needs you to retake control.
Another way to put it is your situational awareness suffers when you don’t have to pay attention to something. Every company skipping Level 3 is doing so because it believes the “handover” is too dangerous, or at least too difficult to perfect.
Raj Nair, a Ford executive who was in charge of product development when Bloomberg published its story with the dozing engineers anecdote, said “it’s human nature that you start trusting the vehicle more and more and that you feel you don’t need to be paying attention.” In the same story, Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, said “Level 3 may turn out to be a myth.”1
Testifying before a hearing of the US House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection on February 14, 2017, Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, said handing off control from the car to the driver “is a difficult challenge because the human driver may be engaged in other tasks and not paying attention. As defined by the SAE, in Level 3, the autonomy must give the driver sufficient warning of the need for a hand-off and must detect any condition requiring a hand-off. Because both of these requirements are extremely difficult to guarantee, it is possible that Level 3 may be as difficult to accomplish as higher levels of autonomy.”2
Sounds pretty convincing, right?
Solutions to the situational awareness conundrum
Except there are brilliant people dreaming up solutions to the situational awareness conundrum and are developing technology that monitors driver behavior. Some use eye movement, some use biometrics, some are probably using things we haven’t thought of yet.
Cadillac’s long-awaited “Super Cruise” system is technically Level 2, although it’s very nearly Level 3 and it seems fair to consider it alongside the Audi’s “Traffic Jam Pilot” system. They both monitor the drivers’ attentiveness, they both allow you to take your hands off the wheel, and they both have can’t miss bells and whistles when it’s time to hand control back to the driver.
Audi’s situational awareness solution is a camera inside the vehicle that makes sure the driver is present and ready for a handoff while Cadillac uses an infrared sensor to do the trick. Both systems will hand control of the vehicle back to the driver if isn’t satisfied with the drivers’ attentiveness. If you’re in the Cadillac, you might even have an ambulance show up if you don’t retake control of the vehicle. Embarrassment might be the most effective feature keeping those drivers from nodding off.
They also don’t let you speed along twisty mountain roads at 55 mph. Audi’s system will only be available on divided, well-marked highways at speeds up to 37mph and Cadillac’s system only works on pre-mapped highways. It all sounds like a reasonable plunge into the Level 3 pool and one that should yield massive amounts of data that will aid in developing Level 4 and 5 systems. Which is one of the reasons Hyundai is speeding to market its Level 2++ driver assist system.
What’s in a name?
The SAE levels are perfectly fine if you’re an engineer, but engineers are a different breed. They think on a different plane than the rest of us. Do most consumers care or need to know the distinctions between the levels? A new white paper commissioned by the Association of British Insurers and written by Thatcham Research suggests a more workaday solution to ease consumer acceptance of increasingly complex systems. They suggest classifying vehicles simply as “assisted” or “automated.”3 Remember in the aftermath of the fatal Tesla crash in Florida when some folks, including Germany and Consumer Reports, suggested the name “AutoPilot” was a misnomer? Consumers often overestimate their vehicles’ abilities.
Sometimes the biggest hurdle companies face in marketing new features to a sometimes skeptical, sometimes ill-informed public is teaching people to use it correctly. It’s interesting to note that GM does not classify the Cadillac system according to SAE levels.
Everybody has an opinion about when AVs will hit the road. People in the prognosticating business are going to prognosticate. It’s what they do and it makes good headlines; but the reality is often quite different. AVs of the Level 4 or 5 variety will hit the road when the technology is ready, when the legal and insurance issues are sorted, and when somebody is willing to fork over the money to put it on the road.
Skipping Level 3 might be as big a gamble as putting out a Level 3 vehicle. It’s possible Level 4 will come soon enough that the whole debate is moot. Or maybe Level 3 will be so successful everybody does it after all. Or maybe there’s somebody working in a shed right now about who’s on the verge of perfecting Level 5 autonomy for a price that everybody can swallow.
So would you go for a drive in a Level 3 vehicle? Thought so…
SAE International’s Levels of Automation