SAE’s vehicle automation classification system is bunk — it’s time for a fresh start

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I didn’t want to have to do this, but we have to talk. The levels of automation envisioned by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) are not what you think. It’s probably time we let them go.

Human-machine interaction researcher Liza Dixon summed up the reason very clearly in a Tweet yesterday.

In short, the main problem is that they are much more complicated and nuanced than the automakers – and the media, I admit – never recognize.

If you go into the details and read the full documentation on SAE autonomy levels, it becomes much clearer that the way they are propagated in public is not what the SAE intended.

In a world powered by mouse clicks, it’s understandable that the public discourse on autonomous vehicles is emerging as a kind of race for excitement. The narrative pits every automaker, startup, and developer in a sprint to the end.

Last week in Japan, Honda claimed to have launched the first level 3 certified vehicle. Certification came from the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, writes Jalopnik.

But that poses more questions than answers. Does this mean that Honda’s autonomous driving technology will achieve the same certification in other countries? How to determine the level of a car? Who should have the authority and oversight over this stuff anyway? What does it all mean?

More generally, this frenzied miasma has brought other questions to mind, such as: who will be the first to deliver a level 5 vehicle to the general public? When will there be 1 million driverless taxis on our roads? Which company will manufacture the world’s first Level 3 certified vehicle?

[Read: How do you build a pet-friendly gadget? We asked experts and animal owners]

Perhaps these questions – and this narrative – formed to generate excitement, or to conceptualize in a simple way, what is a deeply complex conversation that spans hardware, software, infrastructure, policy, and the law. – and is in fact much farther from reality than many stakeholders would suggest.

However, it is not surprising that the SAE levels have been characterized as a hierarchical race to the top. After all, the word “level” suggests some sort of progressive ranking that can be progressed as if it were some kind of video game. And what happens in a video game? We finish and work through each level to reach the last stage where victory awaits us.

The reality is, it’s not a race – or a video game. Lives are at stake, not fake pixel-based lives, real human lives.

As Dixon points out, the real intention of CAS is not for the levels to assume some sort of hierarchy, where the higher the number, the better the system. Or for it to appear as a kind of spectrum that has an infinite number of possibilities, as long as they fall between zero and five.

The automation levels of the EAS should be viewed more discreetly than that. We should be more strict in our interpretation of these, we should not perceive an overlap between the levels and we should certainly not allow automakers to get away with vague terms like “Level 2 plus” or ” Level 2.5 ”.

Think about Tesla and how he talks about his “not really a stand-alone technology.“One of its systems is called Autopilot, the other is called Full Self Driving. Even though they are different systems, they are capable of doing much of the same thing to varying degrees.

However, in either case, the technology does not extend beyond Level 2, as a driver must be fully aware of the road at all times, according to the company’s warning on the technology.

[Read: The six levels of autonomous driving, explained as fast as possible]

As more and more terms like this enter the self-driving discourse, the actual capability of vehicles at each level becomes less clear and what SAE levels actually mean becomes confusing. There is also no arbiter of truth when it comes to enforcing these levels, allowing companies to frantically interpret SAE levels as they see fit, to meet their own ends. .

We’ve talked about the dangers of this lack of clarity many times on SHIFT, but in short, when people don’t understand what their vehicles are capable of, they become dangerous unintentional weapons.

Maybe it’s time to break away from SAE levels and start over. We need to redesign the way we categorize autonomous vehicles, range and driver assistance systems so that they appear discreet and clear.

Looking back, it seems that using the word “levels” was a bad idea from the start.

Sorry SAE Levels, but it’s time to break up and start over.


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Published March 8, 2021 – 12:25 UTC


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