Are true Level 4 and 5 automated vehicles right around the corner?


One of the questions I am often asked on my travels is: are Level 4 and 5 automated vehicles nearly upon us? Before I answer, let me provide a little background on the levels of vehicle automation. 

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the USDOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) classify six levels of capability for automated cars, starting from entirely human-operated vehicles that represent Level 0 to fully-automated vehicles that represent Level 5. In particular, automation Levels 4 and 5 include Automated Driving Systems (ADS) that can perform all aspects of driving tasks and monitor the environment. 

• Level 4: ADS on the vehicle can perform all driving tasks and monitor the driving environment in most circumstances.  

• Level 5: ADS on the vehicle can do all the driving in all circumstances. 

While a few Level 4 low-speed shuttles in geo-fenced locations (campuses and specified city routes) are operating today, Level 4/5 personal vehicles that travel anywhere are a long way off. 

If you’ve been following my columns, there is a lot of work that needs to happen from a technology and infrastructure perspective. While many of the automated technologies are rapidly coming to market or are right around the corner, the cities, municipalities, and agencies responsible for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades move at a different pace. 

Collectively, as transportation professionals, we need to keep focusing on and advocating the benefits of connected and automated vehicles (CAVs). Not just the technological wonder of CAVs, but the safety and societal benefits that they provide. With the release of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report at
the end of 2019 highlighting the dramatic increase of fatalities as a result of red-light running, we can honestly say that CAVs can prevent red-light running and save lives. 

So what are the key safety and societal benefits that we need to advocate?

CAVs have the potential to save lives and reduce injuries because nearly 95% of serious crashes are due to human error. Considering more than 37,133 people died in motor vehicle-related crashes in the US in 2017, the impact ADS technologies can have on saving lives by removing the human-error factor is enormous. 

According to NHTSA’s updated report, The Economic and Societal Impact Of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010, the total harm and quality of life impact from motor vehicle crashes was US$836 billion. CAVs can substantially erase these costs, as well as improve quality of life and mobility.

We spend the equivalent of 1-3 work weeks stuck in traffic each year. CAVs can reduce travel time and reduce traffic congestion, substantially reducing billions of gallons of wasted fuel and time.

CAVs also could be transformative providing new mobility options to millions of underserved citizens, especially the elderly and those with disabilities. CAVs will deliver new levels of freedom to millions. Until next time, travel safe.

Kirk Steudle is senior vice president of Econolite and former director of Michigan DOT. He can be reached at

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