Countdown to Mainstreaming of Self-Driving Vehicles

President, Palisades Consulting Group, Inc.

There is a lot of excitement today about the concept of so-called “self-driving vehicles.” Global management consulting firms and scholarly think tanks are predicting that within the next decade, autonomous vehicles will emerge as one of the world’s most “disruptive technologies,” changing everything from auto ownership and accident rates to land use and transportation infrastructure policies. There is a sense of a countdown to a time when automation will manifest itself in the vehicles navigating our roads just as automation just a few decades ago took over manually operated elevators.

They are probably right. There are significant investments around the world developing everything that is needed to enable self-driving vehicles to emerge. At least two major automobile manufacturers (Nissan and Volvo) are setting 2020 as a target year for introducing their first mainstreamed, truly self-driving cars.[1] Today’s 10 year-olds may be taking driver’s education in 2020 with new test questions on how to regain control of a self-driving vehicle if the automated control system fails. Or, even more intriguing, they may not be taking a driver’s test at all since they may decide, as many young people already are doing today, that owning and driving a car simply is not as important to them as it was to their parents. When they need to go somewhere, they can just call up an “aTaxi” (autonomous taxi) and be driven there by a highly sophisticated, autonomous vehicle equipped with a host of smart sensors and chips controlling the car’s steering, throttle and brakes, as well as Internet connectivity that would enable them to watch movies, play video games or interact with their friends on social media, all while riding to their destinations.

The countdown to mainstreaming of self-driving vehicles is being fueled simultaneously by suppliers and consumers in the marketplace. Technology companies, large and small, are racing to equip vehicles with sensors and control systems that will help them drive autonomously, and the consuming public is eagerly anticipating all the offerings. What is not to love about technology, especially the kind that makes life easier, safer and more enjoyable?[2]

So if consumers want self-driving vehicles, and suppliers are willing to develop and sell them, what might slow down the countdown? The following are some potential roadblocks:

  1. Traffic engineering in key areas may need to be modified or adapted to enable the safe operation of self-driving vehicles[3].

Parking-assist systems are already offered as options for some vehicles. This technology is likely to be enhanced to allow drivers and passengers to be dropped off and picked up while the vehicles self-park. Curb frontage loading areas may need to be expanded and parking areas can be redesigned to be more compact and perhaps located farther away from the buildings they serve.[4]

Self-driving vehicles are also expected to track more precisely within lanes, which could allow lanes to be narrowed. More precise tracking also could lead to wear patterns that may require changes to pavement design. One of the first mainstreamed applications of self-driving vehicles might be dedicated lanes on highways, similar to diamond lanes for carpoolers. What sort of signage and road markings, both physical and wireless, will be needed to direct and manage self-driven vehicles in such situations? What about construction zones, school crossings and special event traffic management? How can these traffic management protocols best be communicated to self-driving vehicles?

Challenge to the Countdown: There is quite a bit of traffic engineering to do in order to accommodate and manage self-driving vehicles; who is in charge, who is leading, and is anyone following?

  1. Laws and law enforcement must adapt to the emergence of different levels of autonomous driving on public roads

Increasing levels of autonomous driving, transitioning over time, will create a dynamically changing mix of vehicles under non-autonomous, semi-autonomous and fully autonomous control. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has developed a categorization system consisting of five levels—Levels 0 through 4[5]—and there will be a mix with each at any time on our nation’s roads for the next several decades.). Will it be appropriate—or should it be required—for there to be an indication of when a vehicle is under various levels of autonomous control so drivers and law enforcement personnel around it are aware of it?

In mixed traffic with both self-driving and manually driven vehicles, should self-driving vehicles mimic driver behavior? Should they be allowed to exceed the posted speed limit if safe operation would be enhanced by keeping pace with other vehicles traveling above the limit? Could the concept of posted speed limits be modified to allow dynamic speed limits that adjust to conditions in real time?[6]

If it is against the law to text and drive, can a driver who was texting while driving successfully plead not guilty if it can be demonstrated that the car was in self-driving mode? How would the law enforcement official have known the self-driving system was engaged without some sort of indication visible on the outside of the vehicle? Self-driving vehicles will likely be programmed to adapt to the rules of the road as they cross state lines, but will law enforcement personnel be trained and equipped with appropriate policies and procedures to handle violations and/or accidents?

Challenge to the Countdown: How will traffic management controls and temporary changes such as special events and construction work zones be conveyed to self-driving vehicles if Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) is not installed in all vehicles?

  1. Insurance risk analysis must be expanded to include different types and levels of autonomous driving by individuals 

Should owners who have Level 2 anti-collision driver assistance devices installed be given discounts on their premiums, since presumably their risk of collisions would be reduced? Will owners who purchase Level 4 autonomous driving features be even safer and thus qualify for insurance premium discounts? Or, conversely, will they be exposed to new and perhaps more dangerous risks (e.g., operating system crashes, cyber security attacks, sensor and/or control system malfunctions, etc.), and thus be charged insurance premium surcharges?

Challenge to the Countdown: Should insurance policies be issued to drivers or to vehicles, or both? Should vehicles be required to have collision avoidance technology installed and operational as a requirement for use of in-vehicle entertainment systems, just as registering a vehicle requires brakes, steering and throttle to be installed and operational?

  1. “Connected” and “Autonomous” approaches to self-driving must be integrated “where it counts”, specifically, at intersections with high risks of cross-traffic collisions.

Government agencies and several automobile manufacturers are funding connected vehicle research projects with time horizons that exceed by decades those of auto manufacturers and entrepreneurial start-up technology companies that are focused on autonomous vehicles. The two camps have a mutual dependency, which is collision avoidance at roadway intersections. Champions of both approaches agree that communication between vehicles and with the infrastructure at intersections is likely to be the optimal—maybe the only way—to truly prevent cross-traffic accidents.

Challenge to the Countdown: It would make sense to identify intersection crash avoidance as a mutual objective and start to find ways in which the brain trusts of the autonomous and connected camps can work together to solve this problem.

  1. Anti-collision technologies must be at least as robust and reliable as human drivers

Implicit in the notion of a self-driving car is that it will be able to avoid collisions.  That is easier said than done and today in 2014, neither the experts in the autonomous camp nor those in the connected one can claim a lead, let alone a victory. There is a long way to go before the auto industry achieves a level of integrated anti-collision defense that will enable self-driving.

Challenge to the Countdown: Collision avoidance is the Achilles heel of self-driving; who would trust a self-driving car if it cannot be relied upon to avoid crashing?

  1. Land use and transportation planners must acknowledge and develop long-range objectives, strategies and tactics for accommodating self-driving vehicles into existing and future communities.

When fully autonomous vehicles are permitted on the roadways, the fundamental nature of vehicle trips will change. Vehicles can shuttle empty to position themselves where they are needed. Parents could let vehicles drive their children to school and soccer practice. Congestion patterns at local and regional levels are likely to change with the addition of self-driving vehicle flows.[8]

Land use and transportation planning policy makers are stepping up to the plate and engaging in the visioning and strategic planning for the emergence of self-driving vehicles.

Challenge to the Countdown: There is already a high level of awareness of the momentum that is building behind a world of driverless transportation, and it is being embraced as much as it is being viewed with skepticism in the land use and transportation planning professions. Now, that awareness needs to begin getting translated into policy development and implementation.

Self-driving vehicles are coming. The items on this list will not prevent this from happening, just like fears in the 1960’s of automated elevators running amuck without human operators at the controls did not stop the inexorable transition of nearly every elevator in the world to full automation. But the faster each professional sector acknowledges that self-driving vehicles are coming and adapts accordingly, the faster we will be able to enjoy the benefits of this technology.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

End Notes

[1], accessed April 24, 2014.

[2] Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone in 2007, and now, seven years later, there are more than 1.75 billion smartphone users around the world (ref. Few, if any, experts in 2007 predicted that in less than three quarters of a decade, the smartphone revolution would completely redefine the nature of how people around the world listen to music, get the news, communicate by voice and text, do their banking, monitor their health, watch movies, sports and TV shows, and take, store and transmit photos and videos. That is the power of “ease, safety and enjoyment.”

[3] Adapted from J. Lutin, et. al., “The Revolutionary Development of Self-Driving Vehicles and Implications for the Transportation Engineering Profession,” ITE Journal, July 2013.

[4], accessed April 24, 2014.

[5]See, accessed April 24, 2014.

[6] Op.cit. Adapted from Lutin, et. al.

[7] Genivi,, accessed April 24, 2014.

[8] Op. cit., Lutin, et. al.

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