What are the levels of autonomous driving?

As autonomous driving technology transitions from the realm of science fiction to reality, automakers are gearing up to make significant strides in this field over the coming decade. Despite the promising advancements, a pervasive issue arises as demonstrated by numerous videos featuring Tesla drivers sleeping or engaging in distractions – a clear indication of consumer confusion regarding the delineation between self-driving and non-self-driving vehicle technologies.

Recognizing the need for standardized guidelines in the early stages of the autonomous vehicle transition, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has pioneered a classification system. This system delineates the extent of driving automation that a car and its associated equipment can provide. Spanning levels zero to five, the spectrum of driving automation commences with vehicles lacking this technology and culminates with fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles. This classification system aims to establish a consensus on the evolving landscape of autonomous driving, fostering a clearer understanding among both industry professionals and the general public.


Level 0 (zero) characterizes vehicles devoid of any driving automation technology. In this scenario, the driver assumes full responsibility for all aspects of the vehicle’s operation, encompassing steering, acceleration, braking, parking, and any requisite maneuvers to navigate the vehicle in various directions.

Despite the absence of driving automation at Level 0, certain driver support systems may be present. These systems can temporarily intervene during driving but do not qualify as driving automation. Examples of such systems include stability control, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot warning, and lane-keeping assistance. While these technologies offer alerts or momentary actions in specific situations, they fall under the Level 0 classification as they do not autonomously drive the vehicle.

It’s worth noting that the majority of vehicles on Kenyan roadways currently fall within the Level 0 category.


Level 1 marks the initial step into vehicle automation, where a car is equipped with at least one driver support system. This system offers either steering assistance or assistance with braking and acceleration. Despite the presence of this automation, the driver retains the responsibility for operating the vehicle and must be prepared to assume control at any moment and for any reason.

An illustration of Level 1 driver assistance technology is adaptive cruise control, a system that autonomously maintains a safe following distance between the vehicle and the traffic ahead without requiring driver intervention. Additionally, a steering assistance feature, such as lane-centering assistance or lane-following assistance, falls under Level 1 autonomy.

It’s important to note that if a vehicle incorporates both steering and acceleration/braking assistance features simultaneously, it elevates to Level 2 driving automation, surpassing the confines of Level 1.


Level 2 driving automation characterizes vehicles equipped with Advanced Driving Assistance Systems (ADAS) capable of assuming control over steering, acceleration, and braking in specific scenarios. Despite the capacity of Level 2 driver support to manage these fundamental driving tasks, the driver’s vigilance and active supervision of the technology are imperative at all times.

An instance of Level 2 driving automation is exemplified by Highway Driving Assist, integrated into Genesis, Hyundai, and Kia vehicles. In this system, the driver is required to keep hands on the steering wheel while the technology actively steers, accelerates, and brakes the vehicle when traversing highways. Another technology, BlueCruise from Ford, represents a hands-free partial driving automation system that surpasses the capabilities of Highway Driving Assist. BlueCruise permits the driver to take hands off the steering wheel on specific approved highways.

It is crucial to emphasize that both examples of Level 2 driving automation mandate the driver’s sustained alertness, engagement, and readiness to assume control whenever necessary. Notably, Tesla’s Full Self Driving Capability technology, according to the automaker’s disclosure to the state of California, is classified as a Level 2 system. This classification remains consistent even with the introduction of Autosteer for city streets through an over-the-air software update.


Level 3, identified as conditional driving automation, leverages various driver assistance systems and artificial intelligence to make decisions based on dynamic driving situations surrounding the vehicle. Occupants inside the vehicle are not required to actively supervise the technology, granting them the freedom to engage in other activities. Nevertheless, the presence of a human driver remains essential, and they must be alert and ready to assume control of the vehicle promptly, especially in emergencies arising from system failures.

Despite the increased autonomy at Level 3, it’s important to emphasize that taking a nap while sitting in the driver’s seat of a conditionally autonomous vehicle is still not permissible.

A notable example of Level 3 technology is Audi’s Level 3 traffic jam assistance, initially developed for its 2019 A8 flagship sedan. However, this technology faced regulatory hurdles in Germany and was not approved. Subsequently, Honda emerged as the first automaker globally to offer an approved Level 3 traffic jam assistance system to consumers. This system became available as an upgrade for the company’s Legend flagship sedan in early 2021, with limited availability and exclusively for use in Japan.

Other vehicles equipped with Level 3 driving automation, awaiting regulatory approval, include the redesigned 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the all-new 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS electric vehicle. The Mercedes technology, named Drive Pilot, is poised to bring Level 3 autonomy pending regulatory clearance.


Level 4 autonomy, also known as high-driving automation, represents a significant leap in vehicle autonomy where no human interaction is required for the vehicle’s operation. It is designed to autonomously bring the vehicle to a stop in the event of system failure. Notably, since human intervention is not necessary, a Level 4 vehicle may lack a steering wheel and pedals.

One notable feature of Level 4 autonomy is the capability for occupants to engage in activities such as taking a nap while riding in the vehicle. This level of automation is particularly intended for use in driverless taxis and public transportation services. Level 4 vehicles are programmed to navigate between specific points, and their operation is typically confined within predefined geographic boundaries through the use of geofencing technology. It’s important to note that certain conditions, such as severe weather, may impose limitations or cancel Level 4 autonomous vehicle operations for safety reasons.


Level 5 stands as the pinnacle of driving automation, signifying a vehicle’s ability to operate autonomously in all conditions and environments without any need for human interaction. A Level 5 vehicle is unrestricted by geofencing and impervious to the impact of weather conditions. With this advanced level of autonomy, the vehicle can transport human occupants comfortably and efficiently without the necessity of a human driver. The sole human involvement is typically limited to setting a destination, as the vehicle takes care of all aspects of driving, making it a truly self-driving and fully autonomous mode of transportation.

Information in this article is constantly updated to reflect industry developments.