Though still in its infancy, self-driving cars are becoming increasingly common and will radically transform our transportation system—and by extension, our society and economy.
Researchers describe self-driving cars on a scale of 0 to 5:
Level 0: All major systems are controlled by humans. This is a traditional car produced in the 20th century.
Level 1: Certain systems, such as cruise control or automatic braking, may be controlled by the car, one at a time. This would be a traditional car in the current era.
Level 2: The car offers at least two simultaneous automated functions, like acceleration and steering, but requires humans for safe operation. Cars like this exist today but these features are optional and not installed on every vehicle.
Level 3: The car can manage all safety-critical functions under certain conditions, but the driver is expected to take over when alerted. This would be like a self-driving Tesla.
Level 4: The car is fully-autonomous in some driving scenarios, though not all. Currently vehicles like this only exist in testing/research facilities.
Level 5: The car is completely capable of self-driving in every situation
Based on current progress, Level 4 driverless cars could be for sale to the general public by the end of the next decade.
Many companies are working to define the safety metrics and validation processes for it. Everyone agrees that safety standards need to be made, and met, but so far no one can agree what those standards are and whether or not they should be similar to or completely different than current standards.
Currently, the industry is totally self-regulated, other than some guidance from the Department of Transportation. The industry has started work on filling in the gaps of these “advisory statements.” Recently, 11 companies, including BMW and Intel, published a report entitled “Safety First for Automated Driving” which laid out “guiding principles for the development, testing, and validation of safe automated passenger vehicles.” While a good start, cracks in competition have already started to emerge as one of Intel’s rivals, Nvidia, announced it is leading a group of European auto suppliers to create assessment methods for autonomous vehicles.
High demand, blame e-commerce
As the rapid growth of e-commerce puts pressure on the U.S. trucking industry, which is already facing a 63,000-driver shortage, the case for autonomous trucks is growing fast. The trucking industry's driver shortage is projected to hit 175,000 drivers by 2026 and may push retailers toward using autonomous trucks even sooner than passenger AVs are deployed. In some places, it’s happening right now.
Amazon is using self-driving trucks developed by Embark to haul cargo on the I-10 interstate highway between Texas and California. Embark and other firms working on autonomous systems—including fellow startups such as Ike, Thor Trucks and Pronto.ai and major players like Alphabet’s Waymo and Tesla—are racing one another to gain market share. Tests are going well, and an Embark self-driving truck recently drove the length of Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to Jacksonville.
The cost/benefit analysis of self-driving cars is still hypothetical. Many more years of development and studies will be required to fully assess the impact on drivers, the economy, the environment and society at large.
Safety is of course the number one concern. Tens of thousands of people die in car and truck accidents every year in the U.S. Self-driving cars could, theoretically, reduce those numbers dramatically. Software is less error prone than humans, but it is also far more likely to fall to criminal enterprise via hacking and gaps in cybersecurity. The “Trolley Problem,” is another concern. What happens when a machine is the one working the trolley switch?
The environment is also a serious concern, and an unpredictable uncertainty. Affordable and accessible self-driving cars could reduce the number of overall miles driven per year. But if those vehicles are powered by traditional gasoline, emissions could rise. However, if the vehicles are electric or some other renewable energy source, emissions could drop significantly.
Like nearly everything with autonomous vehicles, the who, what, when and how are a mystery. The only thing we seem to be able to agree on is the why.