Episode 172 – Autonomous Vehicle Levels and Security Driving

Today’s topic is Autonomous Vehicle Levels and its affects to secure transportation.

On various social media outlets, news reports – vehicle ads – some have touted driverless vehicles. They are going as far as to say that driverless vehicles will soon be here. Some in the security community have asked will Autonomous vehicles eliminate the security driver profession – no, not really.

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That is not to say that basic autonomous vehicles are here to stay. As a Security Driver or provider of Secure Transportation, your client or principal expects you to stay current and know the ever-increasing technologies available in executive vehicles. The various levels of Autonomous vehicles and their effect on the driving task are some of those pieces of knowledge you need to have.

The first issue is that there is no such thing as a completely self-driving car, defined as a car that does not require a driver and is available to consumers. There is not a single one on the road today that can operate in all types of weather and driving conditions without any human intervention. That type of autonomous vehicle, one that will operate with no human control – hence no security driver is called Level 5 autonomy (which we’ll explain later), remains years, maybe decades in the future.

SAE J3016 Autonomous Levels of Driving

Let’s look at the various levels of autonomy. There is a continuum from level 0 to level 5 for six levels of autonomy. The Levels are descriptions or criteria for the degree to which a car can drive itself or assist the driver. Why is this important to the Security Driver? As vehicle Levels go up from 0, each Level takes you away from the driving task—there are significant changes from Level 2 to Level 3.

The name of the Level tells you nothing about what each Level does. As a Security Driver, you have to know and interpret the Levels and their effect on the Security Drivers Triangle – Driver – Vehicle – Environment. It is no surprise that the Society of Automotive Engineers manages the definition of Autonomous Levels.

As a Secure Transportation or Executive Protection provider, you need to know how to decode the Society of Automotive Engineers descriptions of each Level. They recently redid the definition of Levels with the hope of making them easier to understand. There is an infographic of the levels in the show notes.

So, let’s go through the Levels starting at Level Zero and move through to Level Five. Keep in mind that each Autonomous Level is progressively more technologically advanced than the one before it.

Level Zero

Supplies drivers with momentary warnings or occasional assistance. These are systems that jump in occasionally to help you stay out of trouble. Systems like the blind-spot warning which gives a warning in the form of a beep or a little nudge. Also in this category are the Lane drift system. Another would be the Automatic Braking System which can apply the brakes if you’re closing on someone too fast.

All of these devices are included in Level 0; for those who are old enough to go back 15 to 20 years, these devices are like something you would find on the Star Ship Enterprise. The key takeaway from Level 0 is that the security driver is still in control of the security driver triangle at this level. They are monitoring the environment and controlling the vehicle.

Level 2

At this level, we move intothe advanced driver assistance system (ADAS). The ADAS can control both steering and braking/acceleration simultaneously under some circumstances. At this level, two or more systems are working together. For example, if you have adaptive cruise control and lane monitoring working all the time, they’re both persistent and simultaneous.

The Security Driver must continue to pay full attention (monitor the driving environment) for safety and security. The driver is still responsible for monitoring the environment and performing the rest of the driving task.

The key SAE phrase is “monitor the environment at all times.” As a security driver, the environment is more than safety. The driver needs to monitor the security environment. No level of an autonomous vehicle has that capability. No matter what the level of the vehicle is being driven, security is a concern; it requires a human behind the wheel that monitors the safety environment and the security environment.

Level 2 vehicles are not considered to have true self-driving abilities and still need human intervention. These systems currently on the market include the Tesla Autopilot, Cadillac Super Cruise, Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, and Volvo Pilot Assist.

Level 3

An automated driving system (ADS) on the vehicle can perform all aspects of the driving task under some circumstances. ADS is not to be confused with Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS). In those circumstances, the human driver must be ready to take back control at any time when the ADS requests the human driver to do so. In all other circumstances, the human driver performs the driving task.

A Level 3 vehicle can drive from point a to point b if certain conditions are met. In the case of an emergency, drivers are expected to take control of the car. Although Tesla claims to have a Level 3 vehicle, it does not reliably meet the SAE standards. However, other automakers are working to develop this type of vehicle for release in 2021. The only vehicle on the market that covers the SAE definition of level 3 technology available to consumers is the Audi A8. And there are many that question if the A8 is a complete Level 3 vehicle.

Level 3 is limited self-driving and is a crucial change for the security driver and the operation of the Security Driver Triangle. Up until this Level, the security driver is driving all the time. With Level 3, there are scenarios where the driver is not driving, but the security driver has now become a security guard on duty. They are not driving; they are sitting back and monitoring the driving, for example, the Cadillac supercruise. It is limited, conditional self-driving because it works on certain roads highly mapped within its system. When you’ve got a cellular data connection, you’ve got a GPS signal coming in when the cameras are not impeded by weather or anything else that blocks the car’s ability to look at the road. If all those conditions are met, it can do some or a large part of your freeway drive, but not the other parts.

You more than likely will not be driving an SAE Level 3 vehicle anytime soon – but here are a few of the problems that Level 3 creates for the security driver.

SAE defines Level 3 by saying that the driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle. You need to understand under what circumstances that may happen. The automotive engineering community calls this point the Switch. We have discussed the Switch in a previous podcast episode covering the Security Driving Algorithm.

Keep in mind that your job is to be a security driver. Clients or principals are paying you to drive the car, not an algorithm that is making decisions.

Level 4

These vehicles are almost completely autonomous and do not require human interaction. Level 4 autonomous vehicles are constricted by location, cannot surpass certain speeds, and cannot drive in inclement weather. Therefore, a driver or remote operator is still required to be prepared to take the wheel. However, the vehicle can complete a trip with little to no driver interaction, making it ideal for fixed-route vehicles such as corporate campus shuttles. No cars are currently on the market at this level for consumer purchase.

This gets around the scenario we cover in Level 3 – the handoff problem. With Level 3, you have a car that may say; you know what? I can’t do the driving anymore. I must throw it back to you, have a nice day. We mentioned that is unacceptable in the Secure Transportation profession. That can and will lead to some imperfect scenarios.  

With all that said, and no matter what the automakers say or advertise – we  (ISDA) can’t imagine Level Four vehicles coming anytime in the near future. Even if Level 4 does arrive, a security driver in a level 4 vehicle will still be required, in our opinion.

Level 5

An automated driving system (ADS) on the vehicle can do all the driving in all circumstances. The human occupants are just passengers and need never be involved in driving. We won’t spend much time with Level 5 simply because it more fantasy than fact. This is the Level that could eliminate security drivers – but anyone listing to this will not have to be concerned about that scenario. Maybe your great-grandchildren will need to consider it.

In the corporate community, imagine this scenario. A driverless vehicle rolls up to the CEO’s home for the morning pick-up. The doors open the CEO steps into the vehicle. There’s no steering wheel or brake pedal. There was nobody there except for the autonomous level 5 vehicle and the CEO and make life more interesting, the boss is driven on a predetermined route every day.


Every carmaker has its brand name for each Autonomous Level. Some manufactures like Tesla claim that they will have a Level 5 vehicle by the end of 2021. We (ISDA) say it is impossible how that will happen. Even though Tesla says they have Level 3, it is a Beta test and not reliable Level 3 autonomous.

This type of marketing creates a dangerous situation when you’re dealing with something that has to be clearly understood, like vehicle autonomy levels. There is a move from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to get the automakers to establish standards for these levels so that consumers use them the same way and gives them better names than the word–level.

As a security driver, you are more than likely driving a Level 0 or one or two autonomous vehicles. If you drive an Audi A8 and maybe a Tesla, you could be driving a Level 3 vehicle. The newswires are full of claims that Level 3 vehicles will be available in 2021. When and if they arrive this year, we will have to wait and see what driving tasks they are capable of performing and how the vehicle’s operator opts to turn them off.

In all the levels, zero through 5 the SAE, uses the phrase “monitoring the environment.” As a security provider, we must keep in mind that autonomous vehicles monitor the environment for safety concerns, not security. As it has been for decades, the security driver still must monitor the environment for security. There is not, and we guess that there never will be, an algorithm that can monitor the security environment.

As the levels go up into Level 3, the Society of Automotive Engineers uses the phrase “the driver must be ready to take control.”

If anything, autonomous vehicles have changed the way we train. Training programs need to consider the level of the autonomous vehicle the student is driving. Scenario-based exercises need to be developed that consider the various levels of autonomous vehicles and the ADAS systems and from that create, monitor and measure the point when the vehicle hands over control to the driver.

One last interesting note.

We observed that throughout the description of SAE’s Autonomous levels, they refer to the autonomous algorithm as a driver controlling the vehicle, and often uses the phrase Human Driver. Interesting that engineers are calling an algorithm a driver.

If you have interest in going much deeper into these types of topics, I invite you to check out the International Security Driver Association’s website ISDACenter.Org and consider joining to gain access to the encyclopedia of executive protection and secure transportation – The ISDA knowledge center. The knowledge shared encompasses a wide range of EP and ST focused topics with resources, information, and metrics.

 For more information on all of the member benefits, head over to https://isdacenter.org.

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