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Driving Like A Cat, Dog, or Horse? How Animals Can Explain SAE’s 6 Levels of Automation

Animals including a horse, dog, cat, chicken and pigeon ride in a white SUV without a human driver

Editor’s Note: We know it’s hard to understand the SAE Levels of Driving Automation so we asked two writers – one layperson and one expert – to offer some guidance. You can find the companion piece here

It’s 1908 and you’re confused. You’re a traveling chewing gum salesperson and business is hot. People love the stuff, territory is expanding. Just as it appears your career is about to take off, your only mode of transportation, Pickles, has developed bad knees. Pickles is a 20-year-old French Trotter.

Normally, you’d be off to the nearest stable to do some horse shopping, but there’s this other thing. The Ford Motor Company is pumping out these silly looking, four-wheeled machines. You think of yourself as fairly tech savvy, but you just can’t be sure that a Model T is better than Pickles. And, since you live in the Washington Cascades and dabble in mushing, maybe the answer is neither engine or equine, but canine. Hell, maybe sending samples to Seattle by wing is the answer. The options are head-spinning, the future is here!

Coincidentally, we have now, in 2022, reached yet another transportational mindboggler—the six SAE International levels of driving automation. Just because I’m writing this column, don’t be fooled. I’m as confused about the coming era of self-driving as our gum salesperson here. And guess what? When it comes to the uppermost levels of automation, even the experts can sound a bit stumped. Automotive engineer and mobility analyst Sam Abuelsamid just penned this piece for Ground Truth where he rolls-out a commonsense analogy that might help those with a more technical bent.

But I am not an automotive engineer. I’m not an engineer of any kind. I am, however, an animal lover so I figured why not tackle the confusion about the SAE’s six levels of driving automation with a 19th century frame of mind. I expect you’ll disagree with me at points, but that’s okay! You don’t think people quibbled over the merits of Hackneys and Holsteiners?

Let’s begin.

SAE Level 0 — Cat

A cat is depicted behind the wheel of a white SUV in a humorous photorealistic illustration

Yes, I’ve seen the documentary Don’t F**k with Cats. I understand the perils of disparaging felines. But I assure you, as the proud owner of an adorable half Maine Coon floof named Russ, I am not here to hate. That being said, I’m confident you’ll agree that your cat, like mine, is not trustworthy at all when it comes to assisting me in getting from A to B. Left to their own devices, cats may well stay parked in the same place all day—just like the feline-named (and SAE Level 0) 1967 Mercury Cougar.

SAE Level 1 — Chicken

A chicken is depicted behind the wheel of a white SUV in a humorous photorealistic illustration

Cat before chicken, are you kidding? Not a chicken owner, I see. While no one is counting on a hen to carry them to the grocery store, they can rely on her to take control of at least one thing when it comes to sourcing breakfast—eggs! But, she obviously cannot cook them. So, kind of like cruise control, a common perk of a SAE Level 1-capable car on a long distance road trip, it can only do so much.

SAE Level 2 — Dog

A dog is depicted behind the wheel of a white SUV in a humorous photorealistic illustration

Admittedly, there are qualifications here. I’m talking less goldendoodle and more husky. Like, the dog sledding kind, so apologies if you’re not considering a crack at the Iditarod. Such a pup is able to safely negotiate you and your sled across your route, with the ability to steer, brake and accelerate on their own. But not without your supervision and your shouting of learned commands. Just like a SAE Level 2-capable car. (Minus the shouting.)

SAE Level 3 — Horse

A horse is depicted behind the wheel of a white SUV in a humorous photorealistic illustration

A little over 100 years ago, the fine looking mustang that drew a crowd outside a bar was an actual mustang. When motorized vehicles showed up, the crowd laughed them off as impractical. After all, a horse could get you home from the bar without any help from you. Like a SAE Level 3-capable car, a horse has the ability to drive you under certain conditions, and when those conditions aren’t available, you have to be in the saddle to take the reins. Also like a SAE Level 3 car, which at this point is quite rare, horses present a wide continuum of performance. Yeah sure, a Clydesdale would’ve been able to get our gum salesman up Mount Rainier in a blizzard, but a Shetland Pony? I think not.

SAE Level 4 — Homing Pigeon

A homing pigeon is depicted behind the wheel of a white SUV in a humorous photorealistic illustration

This is what self-driving is all about. Pigeons! Just kidding. I’m talking SAE Level 4 automation. No human needed for the return home—just a bevy of built-in sensors that lead the way back to the coup with nary a hand on the wheel. Though let’s be clear, a homing pigeon, like a SAE Level 4-capable car, cannot be unleashed just anywhere and be expected to return just anywhere. To pull off a successful trip, they must first understand that the coop is home. This is essentially operating within a set of parameters in order to achieve autonomy — what the industry calls an operational design domain, or ODD. (There was some internal debate about this one being a bat, which is understandable given the sensory parallels, but who has a pet bat?)

SAE Level 5 — Donkey (of Fez, Morocco)

A donkey is depicted behind the wheel of a white SUV in a humorous photorealistic illustration

Let me introduce you to the famous—and possibly SAE Level 5—donkeys of Fez. Years ago, the celebrated American writer Susan Orlean shared the story of Fez’s beloved donkeys, who, over generations upon generations of experience, have learned to safely navigate the crooked streets of this ancient Moroccan city all on their own. It’s the kind of intuitive awareness, under all conditions, that is the Holy Grail of automated driving. Simply stack the donkey with a truck’s worth of sneakers and TVs and send her on her way.

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