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How Autonomous Is My Car?

2016 Tesla Model S Autopilot

CARS.COM — Automakers are pouring a lot of effort into autonomous driving technology, whether for safety, driver convenience or just as preparation for a day when cars will be used differently than they are today. So, what determines if your car is semi-autonomous, fully autonomous or just features some neat tech that helps you steer and brake?

Related: What Makes an Autonomous Car?

2016 Tesla Model S Autopilot

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is here to help. It’s developed a classification system that defines just how independently your family vehicle can operate.

  • No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the vehicle — braking, steering and acceleration — at all times. Surprisingly, this is not the level at which today’s new U.S. cars operate. All new cars sold today are at least Level 1.
  • Function-Specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more functions outside the driver’s control. Systems such as stability control, which became required for model year 2012, or automatic emergency braking qualify cars for Level 1.
  • Combined Function Automation (Level 2): Here, at least two systems have to work together to allow the driver to give control over to the car for that function. A good example is adaptive cruise control, acting in concert with lane centering, to keep you a set distance from cars in front of you while helping you stay in your lane around a curve. Almost all automakers have achieved this in a limited fashion, but a few have advanced systems available for sale as of this writing.
  • Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): This is the level at which the car can take full control and make all decisions under certain traffic conditions, as well as monitor for changes that would necessitate the driver taking over. The key word there is “full” control. The Google autonomous car is a good example of this level, as are some Audi prototypes that have been proven on racetracks. Tesla’s Autopilot and Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot are almost ready for this level of classification, but they’re meant for highways only, and even when engaged they require driver input for things such as changing lanes to go around slower traffic.
  • Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4):  Tell the car where you want it to go, and it goes there – whether you’re actually in the car or not. This is full automation, start to finish, and it doesn’t require any input other than the initial destination setting (which even could be done remotely). No automaker has achieved this in the wild yet, as it’s extraordinarily difficult to do reliably — but rest assured, the technology is coming, and the future isn’t as far off as you might think.