Currently reading: To L3 or not to L3: car makers divided over next autonomy steps
Only flagship BMW and Mercedes cars currently offer level-three hands-off, eyes-off autonomy – and their use is heavily restricted

Car makers are sharply divided over whether to offer level-three (L3) autonomy as they weigh up the cost versus reward of allowing their cars to take control from the driver for limited periods amid a wider technology race.

Right now, only BMW and Mercedes offer level-three hands-off, eyes-off autonomy in their flagship limos, and then only in Germany and select states in the US at traffic jam speeds.

More, however, are scheduled to join their ranks, with a total of 25,000 global sales of level-three-enabled vehicles in 2024 rising to more than one million in 2026, according to the latest global level-three autonomous vehicle forecast by Counterpoint Research.

Who will join the two German brands remains to be seen. The cost of providing a suite of sensors, including lidar and high-definition mapping to satisfy safety concerns, puts the technology very much into the premium range. Particularly given its limited use.

Renault recently took itself out of the running, citing the "significant technological complexity gap" between driver-supervised level-two functions and level three. "At this stage, the induced cost to be borne by customers in relation to the driving benefits would make demand insufficient or even anecdotal," said Renault.

The Volkswagen brand is similarly concerned by the cost. “We are not premium or luxury,” brand CEO Thomas Schaefer said at the recent FT Future of the Car conference in response to a question about when VW would implement level three. Instead, Schaefer flagged up demand for hand-off, eyes-on level two-plus, where the car takes over many of the driving functions but the driver supervises at all times.

Ford already has that capability via its BlueCruise system, the success of which has emboldened it to look to the next level. “I think that the level-three autonomous is not that far away,” Martin Sander, head of Ford’s passenger car division in Europe, told the FT conference. “Our level three will be much safer than a driver.” He didn’t give a date for its implementation, though.

JLR is also bullish about level three as it looks to keep pace with rivals. “For the modern luxury customer, level three will be a really important part, starting with highways. It’s a really important place for us to aim to,” Tom Stringer, JLR product strategy director, told the SMMT conference earlier this year. He also acknowledged the difficulties. 

“It also comes with the switch in responsibility to the OEM. So it's an enormous step in a number of ways,” Stringer said. A launch this decade is a “possibility”, he said. Before that, the brand will roll out level-two-plus hands-off, eyes-on supervised autonomy, starting on the first EMA-platform electric car next year, which is expected to be a replacement for the Range Rover Velar.

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The risk/reward equation doesn’t add up even for some luxury brands. Bentley is passing on level three, former CEO Adrian Hallmark told journalists earlier this year. “We think level three is dangerous from all the testing analysis that we've done. It relies too much on recovery of attention and intervention from the driver,” he said.

Bentley will instead focus on what it calls “level-two-plus-plus” semi-autonomous technology for its upcoming electric car, the launch of which has been delayed to late 2026, Hallmark said.

BMW and Mercedes are certainly playing it cautiously when it comes to rolling out the technology, which also limits its usefulness to the driver. BMW’s Personal Pilot L3, available on the new 7 Series for example, monitors the driver to check they’re staying awake, even while reading emails. It won’t work at temperatures below 3deg C, in the rain, low sunshine or in roadworks. The maximum speed is 37mph (60kph), after which a series of warning signs demand the driver takes over again.

Unlike Mercedes' Drive Pilot, though, BMW’s system will work at night and in tunnels thanks to the abilities of its Innoviz front-facing lidar sensor, which is said to perform better than Mercedes’ Valeo system.

The belt-and-braces approach taken by Mercedes isn’t mandated by UN regulations governing so-called automated lane keeping systems (ALKS) but was the result of an abundance of caution, Mercedes head of engineering Christoph Starzynski told journalists at the recent Beijing motor show.

Mercedes will increase the maximum speed of its Drive Pilot system to 90kph (56mph) in Germany by the end of the year, Starzynski said. But as of right now, it remains too expensive for anything but the S-Class and EQS. 

The system – an option costing from €5950 (£5070) in Germany – requires a suite of sensors as well as the additional cost of the HD maps. “There is a big jump from level two to level three when it comes to technology, liability – everything. You’re talking about a completely different animal,” he said.

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So far, even though level-three ALKS is allowed in the UK, no car manufacturer has homologated a model for use here.

You’d imagine the jump to a million sales in 2026 might be driven by Tesla, given the US company already offers a product called Full Self Driving (latterly with the addition of ‘Supervised’ to recognise that it’s actually level two-plus). 

However, given Tesla is attempting to move to full autonomy with just cameras, that’s a tall order. “Tesla has a big advantage in terms of mileage, but excluding lidar sets the bar higher and increases risks significantly, regardless of how much training data there is,” said Counterpoint research analyst Mohit Sharma.

Instead, the research company believes China will account for the biggest growth in level-three offerings. Right now, the country is the global hotspot in the battle for level-two-plus supervised autonomy, with a growing number of players promising the car will steer itself from address to address with the driver monitoring at all times. 

There, a slew of ‘smart’ EV brands – including Xpeng, Nio, Avatr and Jiyue (Geely and Baidu’s joint venture) – offer products that claim to be China’s version of Tesla’s Full Self Driving

But the new goal for most brands in China is to offer their beleaguered, traffic-choked customers level-three autonomy. China currently doesn’t allow level three but has issued level three testing licences to a range of brands including Lotus, BMW, SAIC’s IM, Arcfox, Avatr, Deepal Mercedes, Li Auto and BYD. 

Once the Chinese authorities are satisfied the systems are safe enough, level-three-capable cars will account for 10% of all cars sold there by 2028, Counterpoint believes. VW might be bearish on level three in Europe, but not in China. “China is a different story,” Schaefer said. “Because of the regulations there, you can go further and faster.”

China’s speed of level three development could be replicated in Europe, despite the need for different mapping, driving policies and software. Geely-owned premium brand Zeekr could offer level three in Europe by the end of next year in its 001 and X models, head of Zeekr Technology Europe, Giovanni Lanfranchi, told Autocar. Zeekr has officially distanced itself from those claims, but it’s clear that Chinese companies see autonomy as a key differentiator as they look to gain a toehold in Europe.

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Others, meanwhile, have set their sights on the level-four robotaxi. The dream of driverless buses and cars has waxed and waned in recent years as companies get their head around the size of the technical barriers. However, Tesla has revived its previous (so far unfulfilled) promises with the scheduled launch of a dedicated potential future robotaxi in August. 

Renault is prioritising autonomous shared public transport solutions, with plans to ultimately offer a "robotised electric minibus" based on the new Renault Master van in partnership with Chinese-American technology company WeRide.

And VW has linked up with ADAS specialist Mobileye to apply its autonomous Chauffeur suite of sensors, software and computer chips to launch a robotaxi based on the ID Buzz electric van in 2026.

The VW Group is also working with Mobileye on level three systems for production models although the two companies haven’t revealed what they’ll be. Audi is one brand mentioned, which could allow it to catch up with its two closest rivals after ceding them the level three prize despite being the first car company globally to announce level three capability back in 2018 (which never materialised).

Another brand using Mobileye’s Chauffeur level-three autonomous tech is Polestar, starting with the Polestar 4 SUV-coupé. The technology will offer “eyes-off, point-to-point autonomous driving on highways”, the Geely-backed company said, without giving a date when that will become available or what customers can expect to pay.

As critical sensors such as lidar become cheaper and the artificial intelligence ‘large language models’ used to train autonomous systems become smarter, level three will eventually trickle down to an affordable level. 

Until then, level three’s limited achievement will be to allow a few more rich people to reply to a few more emails in a select few countries.

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