In a classic Star Trek Next Generation episode “Booby trap” (S03E06), the Enterprise is trapped, and the solution is to hand full control of the ship over to the computer. A debate ensures about the dangers of this approach. 
In the 1990s, the concept of handing control over to the computer in the 24th century was the plot of a science fiction story – yet here we are, only 30 years later, and having the same debate as science fact.
This is the fourth in a series of articles about the SAE levels of autonomy and we are going to round it out with the complete list of level 4 autonomous vehicles – but keep reading; it is a really short list.
The SAE document is clear about the differences between level 3 and 4. In level 4, if the vehicle finds itself in any trouble during its dynamic driving task (arterials, freeways, etc) then it is up to the vehicle to get itself out of trouble; or in techno-speak achieve the “minimum risk condition”. This may mean pulling over to the side of the road, going into limp mode or even stopping in place in certain “cataclysms” like volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, earthquakes, avalanches or Borg invasions (…not making this up; see page 31 for the complete list – ok, so I made up the last one).
So, are there any level 4 vehicles available? Yes. There are three – but if anyone knows of any others then I would love to know. Direct message me or add them into the comments.
Waymo One is the Google ‘self-driving car’. This video was only recently released...
To put this into context, at the time of writing it is limited to an area of Arizona, appears to only work during sunny days (but it has been tested in a dust storm and rain) and it may struggle with unprotected left turns. I am going to drill into this more in a post in a few weeks.
Also, the number of trips in which there is no driver behind the wheel appears to be in the minority.
Vedecom, a French consortium has a level 4 system. This is a development platform for researchers. They can log data, diagnose the algorithms and swap components in and out. From my understanding, unlike Tesla that effectively throws everything at a deep neural network which is somewhat undebuggable, Vedecom is a balance between algorithms and neural nets.
Level 4 shuttles are like ibis – they are everywhere. There are about 10 different trials at various stages happening in Australia. These are all limited to a highly controlled environment and have a limited top speed that is in many cases barely faster than walking - and supported by a remote driver.
These shuttles appear to all have a remote fallback user; a person who can remotely drive the vehicle if called on to do so. This is a subtle and important point. If a level 4 shuttle gets into any trouble then it has to be able to get itself out of trouble; like pulling over to the side of the road. (The remote fallback user can then take over.)
However, if the shuttle gets into trouble and the remote fallback user is needed to shepherd it through the problem then it is level 3 at best.
So, if in 99.9% of cases it is level 4 but only occasionally level 3 then it is level 3. With that in mind, of this list of level 4 shuttles, which ones are really level 4? It’s probably impossible to say (and arguably entirely irrelevant).
Of these level 4 vehicles, the public cannot buy any of them. One is a taxi, one is a research platform and the other are public transport shuttles in controlled environments.
Interestingly, the SAE is not specific as to whether the vehicle is a car that drives on the road; but it does extensively reference road users, the roadway environment and road signs, so it is implied.
This means that the document has excluded itself from flying cars like the Uber Elevate flying taxi (a flying DeLorean and starships). In time these lines may start to blur.
These last four articles have dived into the SAE level of autonomy. Next week I will provide a summary and will list the things that I think is wrong with the SAE’s document.
Then, a review of the industry and the trends and propose a new scheme...
A short note of thanks to all of the support throughout these articles. I have been enjoying the conversation that this has generated both on and offline.
 NETFLIX - 35min 10 sec “He (Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge) proposes to turn total control of the ship over to the computer because it is capable of making quicker adjustments than any human being.” Ironically, this course of action does not work and instead Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself takes over manual control of the Enterprise piloting it very much like a Level 0 vehicle.