Autonomous Driving: Assisted, Automated or Autonomous?

The Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt) advocates a simplified designation of the various levels of driving automation. Instead of the six levels or stages 0 to 5, the three terms assisted, automated and autonomous should be used. This, BASt argues, is more selective and describes the different qualities better.

The BASt is a research institute of the Federal Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport (BMDV) based in Bergisch Gladbach. Safety has been a priority here for many years. The head of the vehicle technology department, Professor Andre Seeck, was President of Euro NCAP from 2010 to 2014. The committee defines crash safety standards that are constantly being tightened. Euro NCAP is best known for the up to five stars that can be awarded for active and passive safety. Comfort, occupant and environmental protection come together when driving via software.

According to the new terms, almost all passenger cars that are on European roads today fall under assisted driving. This means that the person at the wheel is only supported. He must monitor the correct functioning of the systems at all times and is permanently responsible. This usually affects the lateral guidance – i.e. lane departure warning system or lane center guidance – and the longitudinal guidance. Longitudinal guidance usually means a speed controller that regulates the distance using a radar.

The old world of driving automation in levels 0 to 5: The Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt) advocates defining only three levels, namely assisted, automated and autonomous. That best describes the crucial qualities.

Assisted driving therefore includes the previous levels up to and including Level 2. There are a number of marketing names for this in the automotive industry. The best known is probably the so-called Autopilot from Tesla. From BASt’s point of view, the linguistic difference between partially (level 2) and highly (level 3) automated driving is too small to illustrate the qualitative leap: For the first time, humans are allowed to temporarily withdraw from the control loop.

The BASt says that, literally, automated driving only begins at Level 3 (previously: highly automated) and that the further development to Level 4 (previously: fully automated) is too small in terms of content to speak of a different quality. Only with the old level 5, the autonomous operation, a breakthrough was achieved again.

Mercedes EQB

Mercedes EQB

Almost all of today’s passenger cars have assisted driving functions: people are constantly obliged to monitor the systems. Lateral guidance (e.g. as lane center guidance) and longitudinal guidance (usually a radar-based, adaptive cruise control) are common today, as is the case with this Mercedes EQB. It is usually operated using buttons on the steering wheel.

As already mentioned, automated driving means that people can temporarily turn their attention to other activities such as writing emails or playing games with their smartphones. Sleeping on the back seat, on the other hand, is not intended because readmission must be possible within a certain period of time.

The previous levels 3 and 4 could be combined because they are not identical in terms of their purpose, but they have a similar quality – people can withdraw in certain situations and relinquish control. This automated mode is from 2023 permitted by a revised UNECE regulation up to 130 km/h. Germany is the first nation state to have already passed the implementation into law.

However, the hurdles to getting from assisted to automated driving are high. All systems do not have to be “good” or “very good”, but perfect. It must be ensured that the automatic operation works perfectly even during the return transfer, which must take place with a waiting period of ten seconds. This means that the hardware in the car has to be designed redundantly; similar to an airplane, which again is expensive.

Mercedes S class

Mercedes S class

From 2023, automated driving will be permitted at speeds of up to 130 km/h. For the first time, humans are allowed to turn away from the task of driving. The BASt would like to summarize the previous Levels 3 and 4 (highly and fully automated) as “automated” because the areas of application and details differ, but not the basics: the driver can relinquish control. Only level 5 remains as before; it describes autonomous driving as a quasi-robot taxi.

It is no coincidence that Mercedes offers level 3 automated systems in EQS and S-Class. But beware, the current UNECE regulation up to 60 km/h still applies to these cars. If an increase to 130 km/h including changing lanes is possible on January 1, 2023, Mercedes could be the first manufacturer in the world to use this limit. For this, the approval procedure at the Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) would have to be run through again. Chances are good that this will happen in the foreseeable future.

The new UNECE regulation is also an opportunity for Tesla. The legal framework is finally in place and the autopilot can show what it can really do. Tesla currently charges an additional 7,500 euros for the Model 3 for full self-driving. However, most car drivers are more likely to associate this term with the fact that the previous level was 5 and the BASt continues to refer to it as autonomous driving: At the push of a button (or by voice input or touchscreen), so to speak, a car is transported from A to B. A robot taxi .

With the UNECE regulation that will apply from 2023, Tesla can show how good FSD (Full Self Driving) really is. This is a real opportunity for the brand and buyers will want to know what they ordered for 7500 euros.

Whether and when autonomous driving will become a reality is an open question. With the new UNECE regulation, which according to the BASt nomenclature is simply automated and according to the old terminology highly automated, a new quality has been achieved. It would be logical to only speak of assisted or automated systems and, thirdly, of autonomous vehicles, as BASt proposes. But that would be a loss for the manufacturers’ marketing departments. There is a myriad of technical terms such as autopilot and others that are difficult to understand even for interested laypeople. In this respect, a simplified reclassification would be a step forward.


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