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SAE J3016 is the U.S. DoT's official reference for defining the five levels of vehicle autonomy.
SAE J3016 Standard Core Reference for Automated Vehicles

The U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s policy guidance released Sept. 20 on the testing and deployment of automated vehicles validates SAE International’s J3016 standard as the global industry reference for defining the six levels of automated/autonomous driving—a topic that had been contested until now.

The DoT guidance document, “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” states that manufacturers are responsible “to determine their system’s AV [automated vehicle] level in conformity with SAE International’s published definitions.” This applies to both test and production vehicles. NHTSA will review the manufacturers’ automation level designations and advise them if the agency disagrees with the level assigned by the manufacturer.

The official guidance marks a break from the NHTSA’s 2013 language which was sometimes confused as a competing or even joint standard by some in the industry and media. SAE J3016 provides common taxonomy and definitions that underpin the “SAE Levels zero through 6” description that is used increasingly by industry and regulatory experts. The standard was published January 2014.

Formal acknowledgement of SAE J3016 by the DoT “creates a clearer and in some ways simpler framework for an ongoing conversation between industry stakeholders, advocates, and state and local governments that can help direct ongoing regulatory efforts as the industry continues to progress,” noted Jeremy Carlson, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit, in a statement. “This action is therefore a positive step in enabling progress in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.”

The 116-page guidance document “reflects a shift towards a more proactive regulatory approach,” Carlson observes, encompassing vehicle functionality as well as cybersecurity, privacy, human-machine interface, consumer education, and other relevant topics in the development process. He said that such a wide approach to regulatory assessment “reflects the rapid pace of innovation and complexity in the fast-moving mobility and transportation industries.”

Carlson and the IHS analyst group expect rapid growth in automated vehicles to begin in 2025. His recent report forecasts more than 18 million autonomous vehicles will be sold in the U.S. through 2035, “broadly aligning to SAE Levels 4 and 5” while creating new opportunities for automakers and personal-mobility options for consumers.

DoT will request that vehicle OEMs voluntarily provide reports regarding how the guidance has been followed. This reporting process may be refined and made mandatory through future rule making. It is expected that this would require entities to submit a Safety Assessment to NHTSA’s Office of the Chief Counsel for each system, outlining how they are meeting the guidance at the time their product is to be ready for testing or deployment on public roads.

The safety assessment will be used to assist NHTSA and the public in evaluating how safety is being addressed by the industry as it develops and tests automated/autonomous driving systems.

Along with this initial Policy, NHTSA is issuing a Request for Comment (RFC) on the policy (www.nhtsa.gov/AV) or in the docket as NHTSA-2016-0090. The RFC will be open for 60 days. NHTSA will analyze the public inputs received during that period and address significant comments in its next policy revision.

Recognizing the international importance of this standard, SAE International will offer the upcoming revised edition of J3016™ license free to enable wide adoption by global, regional, and local legislatures to expedite deployment of self-driving technologies.


Originally published as “U.S. DoT chooses SAE J3016 for vehicle-autonomy policy guidance” in SAE’s Automotive Engineering Magazine, September 20, 2016.