Levels of Autonomous Driving, Decoded

August 27, 2022

Team ACV




Levels of Autonomous Driving, Decoded

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A man in his car as it navigates traffic, demonstrating the levels of autonomous driving

Let’s talk about autonomous driving levels. Did you know there’s more to this vehicle trend than the difference between cruise control and self-driving? Who defines self-driving cars and the different levels of autonomous vehicles?

The Society of Automotive Engineers International (SAE) sorts autonomous vehicles into 5 levels.1 The first two levels are technically driver support features. Meanwhile, the last three levels are automated driving features. 

Dealerships have access to SAE levels 0 through 3 self-driving cars right now, though there are only a few level 3’s on the market. SAE levels 4 through 6 automated vehicles are still in development or only used for public transportation. Though, you can expect to see more automakers producing them in the coming years.

So let’s get down to it. What’s the difference between autonomous vehicle levels 0 through 6?

Level 0: No Automation

Before we jump into the five levels of automation, it’s essential to establish a baseline. Level 0 is that baseline. No driving automation means the driver is in full control of the vehicle. This includes acceleration, braking, and steering. A simple anti-lock braking system (ABS) or automatic emergency braking is acceptable, but that’s pretty much it in terms of vehicle technology. 

Level 1: Driver Assistance

This is the level most cars you’ll drive today are at. Level 1 includes ONE driver assistance technology. For example, cruise control or lane-keeping assistance. Both require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, but support the driving function. A vehicle can only be considered level 1 if it uses a single driver assistance technology. Once it employs multiple simultaneously, it’s considered a level 2. 

Level 2: Partial Automation

Level 2 is reserved for vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). This means the vehicle performs driving tasks for multiple parts of driving at the same time. For example, some Hyundai and Kia cars have Highway Driving Assist. While the driver has to keep their hands on the wheel, the car navigates, centers, accelerates, and brakes on select highways. The key with level 2 is that the human driver is still in full control, has their hands on the wheel, and drives most of the time.

Tesla's autopilot feature is a solid example of a level 2 automated driving system. While the car performs acceleration, braking, and steering, it still asks permission for certain maneuvers. The driver is also fully responsible and must keep their hands on the wheel at all times.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

Level 3 steps it up with artificial intelligence. A level 3 vehicle can gauge traffic situations and react accordingly. While the driver has to be alert and ready to take control, they don't have to keep their hands on the wheel at all times. This means they can be preoccupied. 

Mercedes-Benz and Audi are the only two manufacturers with level 3 vehicles on the road. The Audi A8 employs a Traffic Jam Assist feature that lets human drivers disengage from driving. However, many other auto manufacturers are close behind. Expect to see more level 3 vehicles in the upcoming year.

Level 4: High Automation

Level 4 vehicles are much closer to the futuristic idea we had of self-driving vehicles in the 1960s. These vehicles may still have steering wheels and pedals, but not all of them do. No human driver assistance is required.

Level 4 vehicles are fully autonomous in certain situations. They're often geofenced in or bound by weather. They are currently designed for driverless taxis and public transportation. Waymo offers driverless taxis in certain locations. Essentially, they can navigate and drive where they know, within city limits. But they may shut down if the situation is unfamiliar to their vehicle autonomy. 

Level 5: Full Automation

A Level 5 autonomous driving system removes the human driver altogether. In a level 5 vehicle, no situation is off limits. These full self-driving vehicles will be able to drive anywhere and anytime without any human interference. Currently, there are no level 5 vehicles on the road, nor will there be for a while. There are still a lot of safety features and concerns to address. But automakers are making advancements toward full driving automation.

Stock Autonomous Vehicles That Sell

While stocking autonomous vehicles may sound attractive, it's important to know if you can sell them. Your dealership's first step should be to examine your buyer demographics. Who's buying cars from you? What's their income? What features are important to them? If self-driving is something your buyers want and can afford, then absolutely stock autonomous cars. 

Your dealership can buy self-driving auction cars online. ACV Auto Auctions has a wide variety of wholesale autonomous vehicles, and will only get more as the market grows. While mostly level 1, we may have a few level 2’s and even a level 3 here and there. Register now to start looking and building your autonomous vehicle inventory. We look forward to working with you at ACV Auctions!


  1. SAE. “Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to Driving Automation Systems for On-Road Motor Vehicles” Retrieved August 2022 from https://www.sae.org/standards/content/j3016_201806/
  2. J.D.Power. “Levels of Autonomous Driving, Explained” Retrieved August 2022 from https://www.jdpower.com/cars/shopping-guides/levels-of-autonomous-driving-explained