Some residents in New York may be very excited to see the development of self-driving cars. Other people may be a bit concerned about ceding control of driving to a computer. Regardless of their feelings on the topic, these vehicles are the future and it is important to understand what is really meant when the term “autonomous vehicle” is used.

As explained by CNET, there is not just one form of autonomous vehicles. In fact, there are six different levels of autonomy in vehicles. Five years ago, the Society of Automotive Engineers developed the definitions and descriptions that classify cars into one of these levels. These levels have since been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation and they range from level 0, which features no automation at all, to level 5, which is full automation and the complete lack of human driver involvement.

According to Tech Republic, when looking at levels 1 through 4, the big differences start to emerge at level 3. It is level 3, 4 and 5 vehicles only that are truly capable of driving themselves. A level 1 vehicle offers some driver assistance features like adaptive cruise control. A level 2 vehicle includes partial automation that allows it to temporarily make some maneuvers on its own. An example would be automatic braking to avoid a collision. 

While a level 3 vehicle is capable of performing all functions of driving on its own, a human driver is required at all times. A level 4 vehicle removes the requirement for a human driver yet its ability to drive autonomously is limited to certain road conditions, locations or speeds.