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ODDs Are the Autonomous Driving Environments, Defined

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July 15, 2021—Back in February, ADAPT reported on the Beep autonomous shuttle that carries people from A to B along a path in suburban Orlando.

That shuttle was programmed and built to be capable and adequately safe for that low-speed, contained stretch of road. All the potential scenarios that could happen along that road, as well as the vehicle’s ability to account for those scenarios, represent a big part of autonomous vehicle development: the ODD, or operational design domain.

ODD is fundamental to the advancement of vehicle autonomy, from the current ADAS interface to a more driverless future. A recent webinar from Partners for Automated Vehicle Education covered the topic’s fundamentals.

ODD represents the physical, digital, and atmospheric environments in which autonomous vehicles need to operate. It’s a way to articulate the space in which the vehicles move, as well as how technology should be built to operate within that space.

It can be geographic, but that’s a dynamic environment. A single city block will be much different for a vehicle at different times of the day or year. That’s part of what makes ODD so complex.

“You can't treat these things as being the same even if they’re in the same geographical area,” said Raunaq Bose, co-founder and CTO for Humanising Autonomy.

“The ODD should clearly delineate where and when an AV can operate” and how to do so safely, he added.

ODD and SAE Levels

It’s worth considering that humans create their own ODDs as the operators of a level 0 vehicle. That is, a traditional vehicle that a person controls.

“Some people feel uncomfortable driving at night, for example, as the human driver,” said Andrew Smart, AV safety and technical standards consultant for Stantec GenerationAV. “So they’re defining the ODD in terms of their capability.”

At level 1 and 2 automation, vehicles are aiding drivers with warnings or indicators. That becomes part of the human’s ODD. Level 3, in which the vehicle has some control over the vehicle, is the current step. And it’s a difficult one, because it mingles the programmed nature of a vehicle’s computer with the random nature of a human driver.

Level 4 automation is where AV developers want to get. It means that there should be little or no human interaction at all. 

“Generally, they’re starting from a point where they just want to get some vehicles moving autonomously in specific areas,” Bose said. “And that’s what level 4 is.”

Beep’s Orlando shuttle is an example, but it’s on a limited ODD based on its limited route, speed, and environment. It’s a step toward real-world autonomy, though a limited one. In an explainer article from SAE, one expert said that “we are going to deploy our technology initially in easier driving environments.” 

Over time, the ability to build vehicles that can handle more complex ODDs will allow for autonomous driving in urban areas or in varying conditions. They are also being developed for specific uses, like urban driving, mining, highway shuttles, and so much more.


Heavier consideration of the ODD in vehicle development is changing the way that automakers are building vehicles. Previously, manufacturers built vehicles to impose themselves upon the environment. Maybe they had heavily treaded tires to deal with certain conditions, but the environmental consideration was limited.

Now, vehicles are made to consider lane striping for lane detection and pedestrians for automatic emergency braking. Smart likens this change to a box of straws. Previously, OEMs looked through a single straw when building a vehicle. That’s changed.

“People need to look at it holistically,” he said. “It’s the full box of straws we’re looking at here.”

What’s important to know about our current ADAS-laden environment is that ODDs are limited. Human drivers need to know what those limits are and not become too reliable on overhyped claims of autonomy.

“The capabilities of the motor vehicle have increased greatly over the last 10 years,” Smart said. “The capabilities of the drivers haven’t.”

That element is crucial for a safer (long-term) handoff between human drivers and automated driverless vehicles. The expectations and practices of drivers can’t outpace the ODDs that current vehicles are made for.

In other words, sleeping in the driver’s seat of a Tesla isn’t part of the ODD.

“Trust them within the limitations for which they are designed,” Bose said.

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