Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will inevitably become the dominant form of transportation in the 21st century. They represent a radical leap forward in automotive technology and will transform and dramatically enhance mobility around the globe. Cars with increasing levels of autonomy are being released for sale to the public, and companies such as Google and Uber already have fully autonomous vehicles driving on public roads.

The benefits of AV technology are significant and diverse. It is far better equipped to react to driving situations than conventional drivers are in terms of response time, situational awareness, and failure mitigation. It will dramatically increase freedom of movement to previously immobile demographic sectors, and elderly, juvenile, disabled, and disadvantaged populations will be afforded previously unavailable opportunities to engage both economically and socially. It will free up the 75 billion hours spent by Americans behind the wheel each year, leaving more time for productivity and leisure and fostering growth in related industries. It will increase highway capacity 6-8 fold as AVs will be able to travel closer together at higher speeds, and it will allow for the repurposing of 61 billion square feet of U.S parking space. 

Clearly dramatic benefits will follow the adoption of AVs, but there will be important barriers as well. The following challenges are some of the main obstacles facing AV adoption, and the responses provide insight into how they may be overcome in the future.

 

Challenge: Who will be liable for accidents upon the institution of autonomous technology? Will it be the auto manufacturer, software provider, passenger, or other entity? How will insurance be provided?

Response: AV testing requires car companies to either self-insure with a significant bond or provide coverage from a third party insurer. Currently, Google, one of the leading AV companies, has developed a self-insured total fault policy in regards to its developing and testing of autonomous vehicle technology. As experience is gained, the insurance marketplace will further develop and refine its model for dealing with AVs. Municipalities will be fully indemnified.

 

Challenge: What types of infrastructure will be needed to successfully introduce and accommodate AVs? How will it be installed and paid for?

Response: AVs are being developed to function on existing roadways. It is anticipated that their introduction will be a two-step process with the first step being vehicles that work with existing infrastructure—observing and processing road markings, traffic lights, and the movement of pedestrians, bicyclists, and foreign objects. In order for the vehicles to do this correctly and consistently, cities will need to maintain and possibly improve their current road markings, signs, and street lighting to make sure that they are clearly visible in all circumstances. In the long term, more advanced vehicles will be introduced as the infrastructure becomes “smart” with V2X (vehicle to infrastructure) sensors, allowing direct communication from the infrastructure to the AVs.

 

Challenge: Autonomous cars will need to be incredibly secure, as hackers could potentially break into the operating systems of AVs and cause them to crash or malfunction. Additionally, private information recorded by AVs will need to be kept secure. What will be done to protect driver safety and security?

Response: The security of the AV’s data systems will be the responsibility of the suppliers and partner companies. The vulnerabilities are well known and are being addressed by manufacturers as well as by lawmakers. AVs that do not meet industry security standards will not be allowed on public roads.

 

Challenge: The adoption of AVs will create significant employment challenges. There are currently over 4 million truck drivers, 700,000 Uber drivers, and 200,000 taxi drivers in the U.S alone who would find themselves without a job when their vehicles can drive without them. It is reasonable to expect a significant backlash from unions and employment lobbies to be fierce.

Response: The initial introduction of AV technology is expected to be on public transportation and fleet use rather than personal transportation. The adoption of any revolutionary technology is gradual, and the period of transition will provide time to implement or suggest alternate employment channels and markets. New economies will certainly create themselves around AV technology. Still, cities can be proactive against unemployment caused by job obsolescence and work with the departments of labor to create or modify current programs to deal with workers displaced by technology. Cities can also collaborate with local tech companies to assess what skills they need and change curriculums to meet those job sector requirements.

 

Challenge: Will occupants of an AV have the option to manually take control of the vehicle in emergency situations?

Solution: This is a hot topic for regulators working with AV policy. Testing has shown that humans are slow to react when a vehicle switches from autonomous to manual control. In many situations, a human would react too slowly to take the proper action whereas an AV would not. Thus is it likely that humans would not be allowed to take control if the AV could properly handle the emergency situation.

 

As with the adoption of most new technologies, the process will have many intermediary steps, allowing the challenges to be handled in smaller pieces. Estimates for the full rollout of AVs vary, but they will certainly not be ubiquitous for several decades at least. Still, drivers are already beginning to see the benefits of autonomous technology through semi-autonomous vehicles. There is certainly a lot left to be developed and discovered, but the technology is here and it is here to stay.

 

Post by Richard Greenbaum Data Intern at Waycare