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ADAS vs. Autonomous Driving: Understanding Levels of Automation

Self driving car in city at night

Understanding the difference between Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and Autonomous Driving is crucial in today’s automotive world. While both concepts fall under driving automation, they are distinct in their capabilities and levels of driver involvement.

ADAS refers to systems designed to aid the driver for improved safety, including features like adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings. In contrast, Autonomous Driving, or Automated Driving Systems (ADS), represents a higher level of driving automation where the vehicle can operate without human intervention. We’ll explore the six levels of driving automation to clarify the distinction between ADAS and Autonomous Driving.

We’ll define ADAS and Autonomous Driving, and delve into the nuances of each, highlighting their functionalities, limitations, and the various levels of automation according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

What is ADAS?

Most modern vehicles have Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that provide enhanced safety for drivers and passengers. ADAS features are designed to prevent common accidents, such as lane change or rear end collisions.

Some common ADAS features include: 

  1. Adaptive cruise control
  2. Anti-lock braking
  3. Automatic parking
  4. Automotive navigation
  5. Blind spot detection
  6. Collision avoidance
  7. Lane centering and lane departure warnings
  8. Tire pressure monitoring

When not abused, ADAS technology can be a valuable tool for driver and passenger safety. It can help drivers stay alert, prevent collisions, and improve driving comfort and convenience.

What is Autonomous Driving?

Autonomous driving – also known as ADS (Automated Driving Systems) – is the highest level of driving automation. In most contexts, autonomous driving refers to TOTAL automated driving. A car equipped with fully autonomous driving technology can operate without a human driver. 

As you can imagine, the safety potential of autonomous driving is great. 

Vehicles programmed to perfectly navigate road conditions without the possibility of human error would mean fewer accidents, increased accessibility, improved traffic flow, and greater efficiency.

At least in theory…

As of yet, there are no 100% self-driving vehicles on the road. BUT there is a lot of testing being done. 

With the current technology, entirely autonomous vehicles face significant limitations:

  • Technical error – Self-driving vehicles aren’t yet capable of handling unexpected obstacles, detours, and inclement weather. And if human drivers want to resume control of the vehicle, they may not be able to safely do so in all situations.
  • Security concerns – Like most other technology, it is possible for autonomous vehicles to be hacked.
  • High initial costs – To produce a single fully automated vehicle, it could cost a few hundred thousand dollars.
  • Moral dilemmas – Drivers have to make quick decisions on the road. Say, for example, a deer is in the road directly in front of you. You must either hit the deer or swerve. Capturing such ethical issues within automated decision-making algorithms is extraordinarily difficult.
  • Loss of driving skills & habits – There is also the concern that if people become reliant on self-driving cars, they will gradually lose the ability to operate a vehicle themselves.

Six Levels of Driving Automation

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) categorizes car automation into 6 levels:

Level 0: No Automation – You are 100% driving the car. Driver assistance is limited to warnings (like lane departure and blind spot monitoring) and momentary assistance (like emergency braking).

Level 1: Driver Assistance (ADAS) – This is where a large majority of ADAS technology falls. You are still driving the car, but there are some more advanced automated features providing steering, brake, and acceleration support.

Level 2: Partial Automation – A step up from basic driver assistance, partial automation describes the most advanced ADAS features. 

Level 3: Conditional Automation – Now, we are starting to get into driverless car territory. The technology allows drivers to disengage for periods of time. But they must be ready to resume driving under certain conditions.

Level 4: High Automation – At this level of driver automation, the driver no longer has primary control of steering, acceleration, and braking. The vehicle may suggest the driver take over at times. But even if the driver does not respond, the car can bring itself to a safe stop.

Level 5: Full Automation (Autonomous Driving) – We are talking about completely self-driving cars. No human driver needed! (Remember, none of these totally automated vehicles exist yet – at least for legal use on the road.

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