How to Talk About Autonomous Cars

Everyone’s got a half-baked take on self-driving cars. They’re amazing! They’re dangerous! They’ll never happen! The truth is, as always, more nuanced than most people understand. Here’s a beginner’s guide — so the next time you find yourself listening to someone pontificate on the greatness of Tesla’s self-driving cars, you can inject some actual knowledge into the conversation.

First, know that self-driving cars might be rolling out in baby steps over the coming decades. Like a video game, there will be levels. Understanding them will one day be just as important as knowing the difference between manual and automatic transmissions.[1]

Although it’s not yet road legal, the first Level 3 system — on the Audi A8 — is here now, and others are sure to follow before the decade is out.



Anything with tail fins, like a 1957 Chevy Bel Air


None. You’re on your own.



Anything with adaptive cruise control, 1999 Mercedes S-Class


Some. The car keeps a set speed, using radar to speed up or slow down based on traffic ahead.



Tesla Model S, Mercedes E-Class, BMW X3


Semi-automated. You’re still fully responsible for driving, but the car helps keep you centred in a lane, at an appropriate speed.



Audi A8


Highly automated. The car takes over driving responsibility, in certain conditions. You’re still needed as a backup, so no falling asleep or playing Neko Atsume.



None yet


Fully automated. Take a nap. Read a book. The car drives itself, in certain conditions. You’re there as a backup, but not needed.



Will Smith’s I, Robot car, Knight Rider, Christine


Fully autonomous. Drives itself in all conditions. Doesn’t even need a steering wheel or pedals as backup. You are superfluous. The machines have won.

[1] Now that you understand the levels, understand they’re just a rough guide. Until you get to Level 5, where the cars can handle anything, Level 0–4 cars will only drive themselves in some of these specific driving conditions. If and when you buy one, it’ll be important to understand its limitations.


Is This Even Legal?

Currently only Level 0–2 systems are legal for public use in Canada. Governments around the world are working on new legislation to legalize the sale and use of self-driving cars.

Who Made All This Up?

The SAE, Society of Automotive Engineers, an international organization of very clever nerds. Don’t mess with these folks.