Self-Driving Cars

February 1, 2019 – Volume 29, Issue 5
Can they make roads safer and less congested? By Stephen Ornes


Cars that ferry passengers around cities and down highways without the need for a human driver are being tested in an increasing number of locations around the world, fueling predictions that computers will someday replace people behind the wheel. Proponents say autonomous vehicles will revolutionize transportation and virtually eliminate traffic deaths. But many experts say the industry will need decades to overcome technological, ethical and other challenges, including a common perception that self-driving cars are unsafe. Meanwhile, some traffic experts challenge a major rationale for self-driving cars: that they will reduce gridlock. Skeptics contend that widespread private ownership of autonomous vehicles could actually make congestion worse if the vehicles spend hours a day running errands or traveling empty. Legislation to regulate the industry stalled in Congress last year, but federal transportation officials and some states have adopted permissive policies that encourage driverless car companies to innovate rapidly. Other countries, meanwhile, are racing to develop driverless car technology, with China pursuing a particularly ambitious timetable.

Children and parked cars (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Michaela Handrek-Rehle)
Children and parked cars appear in different colors on the monitor inside an autonomous Mercedes-Benz as it drives itself down a street in Immendingen, Germany. Most self-driving cars being tested today have safety drivers who can take the wheel in an emergency. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Michaela Handrek-Rehle)

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Pedestrians in downtown Miami one weekday last November might have noticed something unusual about the blue Ford Fusions threading their way through the city's congested streets. An odd-looking array of cameras and sensors sat atop each car's roof. And inside, the person in the driver's seat almost never touched the steering wheel.

Unlike the conventional cars around them, the Fusions were under the control of software and hardware developed by Argo AI, a self-driving technology company funded by Ford Motor Co. The human behind the wheel was there only to take over if the software encountered a circumstance it could not handle.

That happened infrequently, according to journalists who took test rides in the self-driving Fusions. The autonomous vehicles, or AVs, had trouble navigating through dust clouds and certain other traffic conditions, and they behaved more cautiously than a human driver would, the journalists said. But they maneuvered effectively around bicyclists, mopeds, pedestrians and construction sites — even an Audi moving in reverse down the middle of the road.1

Austin Russell (Getty Images/Bloomberg/David Paul Morris)
Austin Russell, CEO of Luminar Technologies, a California company that makes sensors for autonomous vehicles, demonstrates imaging created by lidar (light detection and ranging). Autonomous cars use lidar along with cameras, radar, special software and other technology to build 3D maps of their surroundings. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/David Paul Morris)

“The ride was a marvel,” said Andrew J. Hawkins, a transportation reporter at The Verge, a technology news website. “Ford's self-driving vehicles deftly handled a variety of challenging scenarios that have been known to trip up even the most skilled AVs.”2

Technological advances by Argo AI and other autonomous car companies are moving the country closer to what some experts describe as a future in which driverless cars are the rule rather than the exception.

“Robots can drive with greater skill than humans, at least on the highways,” Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur who leads research projects at Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus, wrote in his 2017 book, The Driver in the Driverless Car. “Soon the public conversation will be about whether humans should be allowed to take the wheel at all.”3

Proponents of self-driving vehicles say they promise to virtually eliminate the traffic accidents that claim tens of thousands of lives each year, as well as road congestion that costs hundreds of billions of dollars annually in lost productivity and wasted fuel.

But as auto and artificial intelligence companies compete to make those goals a reality, they face an array of challenges, some so daunting that skeptics say driverless cars will not see widespread use for decades. Recent accidents involving self-driving cars have underscored the gaps in driverless technology and fueled public skepticism that self-driving cars will be safe, at least while they share the road with human drivers.

The evolving technology also raises thorny legal and ethical questions about who is liable when driverless cars cause injury or property damage. And software developers wonder whether self-driving cars should be programmed to make moral choices that might, for example, sacrifice a single passenger riding in an autonomous car in order to spare a group of pedestrians.

“No matter how complicated a crash is, self-driving vehicles will have to decide which way to go and whom to save,” said Victor Haydin, acting automotive practice leader at Intellias, a software development company in Ukraine.4

And it remains to be seen whether people who take pleasure in driving, and who see their cars as a reflection of their personality, will accept computers behind the wheel. “It is far from clear that every American consumer is going to be ready to abandon America's love affair with the open highway,” said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy organization in Washington.5

Still, analysts predict rapid growth in the automated car industry. By 2050, self-driving cars will have created an entirely new sector of the economy worth $7 trillion, according to a 2017 report by Intel, the California technology company, and Strategy Analytics, a market research firm in Massachusetts.6

Driverless car companies already are investing billions in the technology, which uses cameras, radar and lidar (light detection and ranging) — devices that fire millions of laser beams each second and measure the time it takes them to bounce back. The cars’ computer software uses that information to construct a 3D map of the surrounding environment. And artificial intelligence tools teach self-driving cars to recognize everyday traffic scenarios — pedestrians in a crosswalk or cyclists sharing the road, for example.7

SAE International, the professional association of automotive engineers, identifies five levels of automated driving, starting with technology such as cruise control (Level 1) and ending at full automation (Level 5), in which vehicles are capable of driverless operation in all circumstances and do not need a steering wheel. Level 0 vehicles have no autonomous features at all.8

For now, the industry is heavily invested in developing Level 4 cars that can operate without a human driver under most but not all conditions. Such cars might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather.9

The diagram shows how a driverless car works.

Long Description

Driverless vehicles use lasers, cameras, computer processors and software, radar, GPS and lidar (light detection and ranging) devices to create and constantly update a 3D map of their surroundings. Self-driving car companies also use artificial intelligence and machine learning to program the vehicles to learn from their experiences and act more like human drivers.

Source: Waymo

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Component Description of How It Functions
Vision System High-resolution cameras with a 360-degree view work at long range and in low light.
Lidar Emits millions of laser pulses each second and measures how long each takes to reflect off a surface and return.
Radar Radio waves track the speed of other objects around the vehicle.
Supplemental Sensors GPS helps the vehicle pinpoint its location; an audio detection system “hears” emergency sirens hundreds of feet away.
Onboard Computer Software uses machine learning to predict how objects on the road will behave; a secondary computer can stop the vehicle if the main computer fails.

Waymo, which began as Google's self-driving car project and is now a subsidiary of Google's parent company, technology giant Alphabet in Mountain View, Calif., began testing Level 4 driverless vehicles in Arizona in October 2017, without a human backup driver.10

A year later, Waymo became the first company to win approval from California to test autonomous cars on public roads without a human in the driver's seat. In December, the company began offering a driverless, commercial taxi service — Waymo One — in four Phoenix suburbs, using Chrysler Pacifica minivans with backup human drivers.11

Self-driving cars operating at varying levels of autonomy are sharing the road with human drivers in an increasing number of locations across the country:

  • Aptiv, a global technology company in Ireland, has 30 self-driving cars operating through the Lyft ride-sharing service in Las Vegas. The company says cars equipped with its technology have given rides — with a safety driver behind the wheel — to more than 50,000 passengers since January last year.12

  • Uber, the ride-share company, is testing driverless cars on a defined route in Pittsburgh. Uber and its competitors are highly motivated to develop autonomous technology because their biggest expense is paying their drivers.13

  • Cruise, General Motors’ self-driving car subsidiary, has partnered with food delivery company DoorDash to test self-driving cars for making food deliveries in San Francisco. And all-electric Chevy Bolts with Cruise software are on the roads in San Francisco, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Orion, Mich.14

  • Self-driving car company Zoox in Silicon Valley is testing Toyota Prius and Highlander vehicles equipped with its software in San Francisco. “We are driving in cities and on highways,” the company said on its website. “Making unprotected lefts and rights on red. Yielding to pedestrians and passing double-parked vehicles.”15

Experts offer a range of predictions on when driverless cars might become commonplace across the country. Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, said human drivers will be gone from Los Angeles’ roads within 25 years. Elon Musk, CEO of car company Tesla, said in 2017 that Americans would be “sleeping in our cars” within two years.16

But many experts are not so bullish on self-driving technology. “It depends where you live,” said Karl Iagnemma, Aptiv's president of automotive mobility. “If you're in Vegas today, you see them all over the place. Other cities, it's going to be a long, long time.”17

Cost is one factor. The technology on a fully autonomous car could add up to $150,000 to its price, although some industry experts expect that cost to drop dramatically by 2025 because of technology advances and higher production volume.18

Until driverless technology becomes more widespread, it is difficult to say whether the industry's claims regarding safety and traffic congestion have merit.

A study published last April by university researchers suggested that adding just a small number of driverless vehicles to the roadways would help reduce traffic jams. “The idea is that the cars with self-driving features smooth out the flow by driving at the average speed,” said Daniel Work, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University and a lead researcher on the study.19

But other researchers say demand for driverless cars will add to the number of vehicles on the street and increase congestion. “If everyone shopping downtown has a car circling the block waiting for them, well, that level of congestion will far exceed what's generated by cars circling for parking today,” said Jarrett Walker, a consulting transit planner in Portland, Ore.20

A self-driving Uber navigates (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)
A self-driving Uber navigates through San Francisco in 2017. Uber is one of many companies testing autonomous technology in cities around the country. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)

Industry representatives also pitch driverless technology as the solution to what they describe as an epidemic of traffic deaths. More than 37,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes in 2017, and about 94 percent of those crashes were caused by human error. And people who are too old to drive or who have a disability say self-driving cars offer new freedom and mobility.21

But skeptics say driverless cars will never operate safely all the time. “The real world is full of things that cars’ sensors and software have never seen before,” said John Naughton, who teaches public understanding of technology at the Open University, an online higher education institution in Britain.22

Recent accidents have reinforced such views. In March last year, a self-driving Uber undergoing testing with a safety driver behind the wheel struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that, before hitting the woman, the Uber mistakenly classified her as an unknown object, as a vehicle and then as a bicycle, “with varying expectations of future travel path.”

The safety driver was streaming Hulu on a mobile device just before the collision occurred, according to police, and the car's emergency braking system was not turned on as part of the testing process. Uber temporarily suspended autonomous road testing after the accident.23

The map shows states with autonomous vehicle legislation in 2018.

Long Description

At least 29 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws related to self-driving cars. Some states allow autonomous cars to operate without a human driver, while others require a licensed driver to be behind the wheel at all times. A number of states exempt driverless vehicles from rules requiring vehicles to maintain a minimum following distance.

Source: “Autonomous Vehicles, Self-Driving Vehicles Enacted Legislation,” National Conference of State Legislatures, Nov. 7, 2018,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

States Autonomous Vehicle Legislation Status
Alabama Legislation
Alaska No Legislation
Arizona No Legislation
Arkansas Legislation
California Legislation
Colorado Legislation
Connecticut Legislation
Delaware No Legislation
District of Columbia Legislation
Florida Legislation
Georgia Legislation
Hawaii No Legislation
Idaho No Legislation
Illinois Legislation
Indiana Legislation
Iowa No Legislation
Kansas No Legislation
Kentucky Legislation
Louisiana Legislation
Maine Legislation
Maryland No Legislation
Massachusetts No Legislation
Michigan Legislation
Minnesota No Legislation
Mississippi Legislation
Missouri No Legislation
Montana No Legislation
Nebraska Legislation
Nevada Legislation
New Hampshire No Legislation
New Jersey No Legislation
New Mexico No Legislation
New York Legislation
North Carolina Legislation
North Dakota Legislation
Ohio No Legislation
Oklahoma No Legislation
Oregon Legislation
Pennsylvania Legislation
Rhode Island No Legislation
South Carolina Legislation
South Dakota No Legislation
Tennessee Legislation
Texas Legislation
Utah Legislation
Vermont Legislation
Virginia Legislation
Washington Legislation
West Virginia No Legislation
Wisconsin Legislation
Wyoming No Legislation

Tesla cars using semi-autonomous technology also have been involved in serious accidents, including at least two since 2016 in which the drivers were killed while the cars were operating in Autopilot, Tesla's semi-autonomous driving mode. “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” Tesla said after one of the accidents.24

Public trust in driverless car technology has dropped in response to such accidents, according to AAA, the member association for U.S. drivers. Last May, the association reported that 73 percent of drivers said they would be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, up from 63 percent in late 2017.25

Congress still has not approved legislation to regulate autonomous cars, but at least 29 states and the District of Columbia have approved such measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in October, the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released voluntary guidelines for autonomous cars that allow cars without steering wheels, pedals or mirrors.26

“Fully automated cars and trucks that drive us, instead of us driving them, will become a reality,” NHTSA officials said.27

As driverless car companies, researchers, safety advocates and policymakers consider the impact and future of autonomous vehicle technology, here are some of the questions they are asking:

Will self-driving cars reduce traffic congestion?

Advocates for AV technology describe a future in which driverless cars and trucks rule the road, communicating digitally with each other and with computers at intersections, and moving at a steady, safe speed through urban centers and down highways. Today's traffic jams will be a thing of the past, those advocates say.

“The confluence of the robotic vehicle and the cloud structure that allows [autonomous] vehicles to communicate will make it so there's a hope in the future that when I get in a vehicle I'm not paralyzed by the congestion,” said Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford. “That's the promise here — that we reduce the congestion paradox as cities are growing.”28

The study that Work and other university researchers published last year suggests the goal is achievable. In that study, researchers had passenger vehicles, including one equipped with driverless technology, drive around a circular track. The drivers were told to drive as if they were in rush-hour traffic — to avoid tailgating, but to try to catch up to the vehicle ahead if a gap in traffic appeared.

The researchers found that “stop-and-go waves” developed when a human driver controlled the autonomous car. When that driver relinquished control to the computer, the waves diminished. “AVs can revolutionize the control of traffic flow,” the study said. “A single autonomous vehicle can control the flow of at least 20 human-controlled vehicles around it.”29

Hesham Rakha, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech and the director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility at the university's Transportation Institute, says many such studies are too experimental to be definitive. “A lot of these evaluations are done in simulation environments,” he says. “Of course, until it's actually implemented in the field, those reactions could be different from what we expect them to be.”

Rakha's research shows that even seemingly minor actions by human drivers can create standstills in traffic. “One little touching of the brake can pull the whole system down,” he said.30

Traffic backs up on I-95 (Getty Images/The Miami Herald/C.M. Guerrero)
Traffic backs up on I-95 in South Florida as Tropical Storm Gordon approaches on Sept. 3, 2018. Proponents of driverless cars say they will reduce such tie-ups, but skeptics say the cars could make traffic congestion worse. (Getty Images/The Miami Herald/C.M. Guerrero)

Other experts say that until cities update their road systems to install smart technology that communicates with autonomous vehicles to manage traffic, driverless cars may actually increase congestion, particularly in downtown areas.

In Boston, for example, it is likely that AVs “will be chosen as substitutes for short public transportation trips,” according to a June 2018 report from the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group, an international management consulting firm.

“A decrease in mass-transit use takes passengers off high-capacity trains and buses and moves them into 4- to 16-seat AVs, which increases the number of road-based trips, adds to congestion and increases travel time by 5.5 percent,” the report said.31

Researchers at MIT's Senseable City Laboratory, which investigates how digital technologies affect people's lives, acknowledge that driverless technology is blurring the distinction between public and private transportation. But they say that does not mean it will worsen traffic congestion. Instead, it could allow multicar families, for example, to downsize to one self-driving car that transports different family members throughout the day.

The pie chart shows the percentage of U.S. adults who say they are likely or unlikely to ride in a self-driving car.

Long Description

Only 21 percent of American adults said they would consider riding in a self-driving car if given the chance.

Source: Darrell M. West, “Brookings survey finds only 21 percent willing to ride in a self-driving car,” Brookings Institution, July 23, 2018,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Response Percentage Who Would Consider Riding in a Self-driving Car
Very unlikely 46%
Somewhat unlikely 15%
Somewhat likely 9%
Very likely 12%
Don't know or no answer 18%

“After delivering you to your destination, it doesn't sit idle in a parking lot for 20-plus hours,” Matthew Claudel, a former researcher at the lab and now head of civic innovation at MIT, and Carlo Ratti, the lab's director, wrote in 2015. The two said autonomous cars could reduce traffic in cities such as New York by 80 percent, by combining ride-sharing with car-sharing. “Because autonomous vehicles don't get lost, they create less congestion and shorten travel time,” they said. Other experts say driverless cars will dramatically reduce traffic accidents, another cause of backups.32

Whether driverless vehicles reduce congestion depends largely on their share of total traffic, according to the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank in Washington. If 10 percent of the vehicles on a given freeway at rush hour are self-driving, for example, traffic will flow more smoothly for everyone, the center said. “However, if just one out of two hundred vehicles are AVs, the impact would be nonexistent or greatly lessened,” it said.33

In 2017, a group of self-driving cars at Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army testing facility in Maryland, demonstrated a concept called “platooning” that traffic experts say could prove key to reducing congestion as driverless technology advances. The term refers to self-driving cars forming closely spaced, single-file groups while communicating with each other's onboard computers. “Platoon formations improve travel time, increase lane capacity, and reduce congestion,” federal transportation officials said.34

Until there are more driverless cars on the road, researchers say, it is difficult to know how human drivers will react to them.

Audi, which is working to develop driverless technology through its subsidiary, Autonomous Intelligent Driving, says its research shows that replacing 20 percent of human drivers with autonomous cars could reduce travel times by one third. But the company said that would depend on an increase in ride-sharing and replacing current traffic infrastructure with “thoroughly transformative” digital road infrastructure, which experts say would come at enormous cost.

“The results suggest that autonomous cars, mobility services, and networked infrastructure can significantly reduce congestion and road space,” said Melanie Goldmann, head of culture and trends communication at Audi. “At the same time, more young and old people can travel safely and conveniently.”35

Will autonomous cars ever be safe enough to operate without human drivers?

After 10 million miles on U.S. roads, Waymo's self-driving cars, which operate at Level 4 autonomy, have yet to be involved in a serious accident. “Our cars are designed to take the safest route, even if that means adding a few minutes to your trip,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said. “They … will choose the safest place to pull over, even if it means having to walk a few extra steps to a destination.”36

Federal officials believe the industry's focus on safety will eventually produce technology that allows humans to completely relinquish the task of driving to computers. They note that autonomous technology already stops cars automatically in emergencies and helps keep them from drifting into oncoming traffic.

“Driver assistance technologies in today's motor vehicles are already helping to save lives and prevent injuries,” NHTSA said. “The continuing evolution of automotive technology aims to deliver even greater safety benefits and — one day — deliver Automated Driving Systems that can handle the whole task of driving when we don't want to or can't do it ourselves.”37

Car companies also promise that replacing human drivers with autonomous technology will drastically reduce — or even eliminate — traffic deaths, which total about 1.25 million each year globally.38

“Our Cruise AV has the potential to provide a level of safety far beyond the capabilities of humans,” GM said. “As our experience and iterative improvements continue, we will advance closer to our zero crashes vision.”39

At least for now, however, the list of circumstances that driverless cars are not yet able to handle — such as severe snowstorms, fog, clouds of dust or severe glare — is too long to make the cars safe without a human at the wheel, many experts say. “We're not ready. We simply do not have the technology,” says Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Cummings says measuring safety based on the number of miles driverless cars have covered without a serious accident can be misleading, “especially when those numbers are generated in sunny climates with white lines clearly visible on well-maintained highways.”

But she said driverless technology will continue to improve. “Lane detection and the car's ability to see what's happening and avoid accidents … will all get better over time,” she said. “When do I think that you will be able to use your cellphone to call a car, have it pick you up, jump in the backseat and have it take you to Vegas? We're still a good 15 to 20 years from that.”40

California, the only state that collects crash data on autonomous vehicles, received 129 collision reports involving such vehicles between October 2014 and December 2018. Most were minor, including an incident in which a golf ball struck a Cruise AV.41

The line graph shows annual motor vehicle fatalities from 1940 to 2017.

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Annual traffic deaths have gradually declined since peaking at more than 56,000 in 1972. However, they have averaged about 40,500 per year since 2000.

Source: “Historical Fatality Trends: Car Crash Deaths and Rates,” National Safety Council, 2019,

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Year Number of Vehicle Fatalities
1940 34,501
1941 39,969
1942 28,309
1943 23,823
1944 24,282
1945 28,076
1946 33,411
1947 32,697
1948 32,259
1949 31,701
1950 34,763
1951 36,996
1952 37,794
1953 37,956
1954 35,586
1955 38,426
1956 39,628
1957 38,702
1958 36,981
1959 37,910
1960 38,137
1961 38,091
1962 40,804
1963 43,564
1964 47,700
1965 49,163
1966 53,041
1967 52,924
1968 54,862
1969 55,791
1970 54,633
1971 54,381
1972 56,278
1973 55,511
1974 46,402
1975 45,853
1976 47,038
1977 49,510
1978 52,411
1979 53,524
1980 53,172
1981 51,385
1982 45,779
1983 44,452
1984 46,263
1985 45,901
1986 47,865
1987 48,290
1988 49,078
1989 47,575
1990 46,814
1991 43,536
1992 40,982
1993 41,893
1994 42,524
1995 43,363
1996 43,649
1997 43,458
1998 43,501
1999 42,401
2000 43,354
2001 43,788
2002 45,380
2003 44,757
2004 44,933
2005 45,343
2006 45,316
2007 43,945
2008 39,790
2009 36,216
2010 35,332
2011 35,303
2012 36,415
2013 35,369
2014 35,398
2015 37,757
2016 40,327
2017 40,231

Kyle Vogt, co-founder and chief technology officer at Cruise, said the California reports show that human drivers assume other drivers will not always obey traffic rules, but robotic cars are programmed to obey the rules in every case.42

Assessing the safety of autonomous vehicles is an inexact science, and opinions vary widely on how to define “safe enough” in the context of replacing human drivers with sensors and software. One study suggests that people will not willingly turn over control of a car to a computer unless the technology is at least four to five times safer than a human driver.43

“Individuals increase their demand for safety when that safety is entrusted to an external factor, such as an automated vehicle,” said the Insurance Journal.44

Surveys taken after last year's Uber accident in Arizona and fatal wrecks involving Tesla semi-autonomous cars suggest the incidents caused public trust in driverless cars to drop. In one of those surveys, conducted by the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, only 27 percent of people said self-driving cars would help reduce traffic accidents, even when they were told that about 90 percent of accidents involve human error.45

“Recent fatalities involving self-driving vehicles appear to be making people nervous about self-driving vehicles,” said Darrell West, author of the report and founding director of Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation.46

Such fears threaten to hold back driverless technology, some experts say. “Putting AVs on the road before they're perfect improves the technology more quickly — and could save hundreds of thousands of lives over time,” according to the RAND Corp., a public policy think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. “If autonomous vehicle use were widespread, the cars would travel more miles, learn much faster, and make safety gains more quickly.”47

Other experts say Level 5 autonomous vehicles, which operate completely outside of human control, could see widespread use in the near future, but only, for example, on roads built for them. Otherwise, “it is unclear when it will be possible to dispense entirely with human oversight and commonsense reasoning,” data scientists at Deloitte, a multinational professional services firm in New York City, said in 2017.48

Rosenfield at Consumer Watchdog said the day when computers will be ready to safely handle all driving duties anywhere at any time remains far in the future. “The … sensor communications infrastructure that would enable tens of millions of vehicles to simultaneously, securely and autonomously operate in proximity to each other on streets and highways without human intervention is barely in the planning stages,” he said.49

Are federal and state officials taking the right approach to regulating autonomous vehicles?

So far, the driverless car industry has gotten mostly green lights from policymakers and federal officials in its push to increase the number of autonomous cars operating on U.S. roads.

“We're not in the business of picking winners or losers,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in March 2018 regarding her agency's regulation of driverless cars. “The market will decide what is the most effective solution.”50

The voluntary guidelines that NHTSA issued in October reflect that approach. They replace earlier, more restrictive rules that would have blocked the industry from selling cars designed without steering wheels or brake pedals. The guidelines describe the earlier safety standards as “an unintended regulatory barrier to innovation.”

The new guidelines also urge states to use a light touch in regulating the driverless car industry, advising them, for example, to consider modifying laws that bar vehicles from following each other too closely on the highway. Such restrictions would make it illegal for automated trucks to form the tightly spaced platoons that the industry says would conserve fuel by reducing air resistance on trucks following the lead vehicle.51

Proponents of self-driving vehicles have cheered the largely hands-off regulatory strategy.

“Over-regulating autonomous vehicles will slow down the adoption of a technology which will create millions of new high-paying jobs across the United States and make roads safer for all Americans,” said Grayson Brulte, co-founder of a firm in California that provides consulting services to the driverless car industry.52

But safety advocates say the new federal guidelines give too much power to companies developing driverless technology. “Despite deaths, injuries, and crashes involving a variety of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicle technology across the country, DOT [the Department of Transportation] continues to insist that eliminating regulation is the way to achieve safety,” said the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group in Washington.53

John Simpson, director of privacy and technology at Consumer Watchdog, accused federal officials in 2017 of handing the AV industry “a road map that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”54

On the state level, laws regulating autonomous vehicles vary widely on critical issues such as whether a human driver must always be behind the wheel and who is liable when an autonomous car crashes. AV companies prefer to test their vehicles in states such as Arizona that have the most permissive laws. As a result, those states could be the first to see AVs marketed to consumers.55

Some experts say the inconsistencies in state laws pose potentially complex legal challenges.

“It is possible that the patchwork of state laws could become a problem in allowing vehicles to travel between states and for the same vehicle to be considered ‘legal’ in all 50 states,” said Jennifer Skees, a legal research associate in the technology policy program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia.56

Congressional legislation could solve such problems by establishing uniform standards for self-driving cars across the country, but lawmakers disagree about how much oversight power federal regulators should have.

In 2017, the House passed legislation — the Self Drive Act — designed to speed the rollout of autonomous vehicles, partly by increasing the number of exemptions that driverless car companies could receive from federal safety standards. To qualify for an exemption, however, driverless car companies would have to prove that the vehicle in question was at least as safe as one operated by a human driver.

The House-passed legislation would bar states from setting design, construction and performance standards for AVs during testing. That means states could no longer impose requirements such as one in New York that requires driverless car companies to pay for a police escort whenever they test their cars.57

Similar legislation — the AV Start Act, introduced by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. — stalled in the Senate last year. The bill's supporters touted its potential to reduce driver deaths and speed the development of new technology. “With highway fatalities [about] 40,000 per year, it is more urgent than ever to allow for the deployment of technologies that address the primary cause of auto crashes: human error and misbehavior,” said the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.58

But some lawmakers argued that the bill would not do enough to make autonomous vehicles safe from hacking and other dangers. “Self-driving cars should be no more likely to crash than cars currently do, and should provide no less protection to occupants or pedestrians in the event of a crash,” five Senate Democrats said in a March 2018 letter to Thune.59

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Radio-Controlled Beginnings

Engineers and scientists have worked to build cars that could operate without a driver behind the wheel since the early days of the automobile. But the earliest examples did not drive themselves, as autonomous cars today do. Instead, they were operated by remote control.

In 1921, at a military base in Dayton, Ohio, Capt. R. E. Vaughn of the Army Radio Service demonstrated a three-wheeled wagon that Vaughn controlled via radio from inside an Army truck that drove behind. “It halted when the traffic cops put up their hands,” the Riverside, Calif., Daily Press reported at the time. “And it started and turned corners when ordered.”60

In 1925, inventor Francis Houdina showed off another remote-controlled auto on Broadway in New York City. The New York Times reported that the car, controlled by a radio apparatus in a vehicle nearby, “steered a wobbly course through heavy traffic … narrowly missing a speeding fire engine and crashing finally into a car in which moving picture men were grinding their cameras.”61

A year later, Achen Motor in Milwaukee demonstrated a “Phantom Auto,” also radio-controlled. A newspaper in Fredericksburg, Va., described the car as “one of the most amazing products of modern science” and “uncanny and mystifying.”62

Even while such cars made headlines during the 1920s, they had no well-defined purpose. At the same time, drivers of conventional cars were causing an increasing number of fatalities. By 1930, about a dozen states still had no speed limit, and cars were not equipped with seat belts. Driving deaths hit a new high of 39,643 in 1937, up 54 percent from 10 years earlier.63

Safety, mostly an afterthought in the automotive industry's early years, acquired new importance. In the mid-1930s, more than three decades after the invention of the seat belt, physicians began urging carmakers to install the devices in new vehicles, but it would be decades before they became standard equipment in new cars. At that time, seat belts consisted of a single strap that buckled across the waist, with no shoulder restraint.64

Driverless car technology remained focused on operating vehicles using technology installed in roadways. Futurama, a General Motors exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, envisioned radio-controlled cars driving through cities, powered by electromagnetic fields from cables embedded in the road.65

Farms, where heavy machines perform routine tasks without having to avoid other vehicles or pedestrians, became a particularly attractive market for driverless vehicles. In 1940, Frank Andrew, a farmer in Palmyra, Ill., invented a driverless tractor controlled by a piano wire connecting a steering device on the tractor to an elevated wheel in the center of a field.

“I just start the tractor and it winds itself on the wheel in a spiral until it gets to the center of the field,” Andrew said. “I couldn't see why a farmer had to run a tractor up and down a field all day when he could be doing something else.” The device attracted publicity but never gained a market.66

In the 1950s, Ford also developed a driverless tractor called “The Sniffer,” but it never proved commercially viable because it required the installation of underground wires in farm fields.67

First Cruise Control

Also in the 1950s, GM and RCA, the now-defunct electronics company based in New York City, cooperated on a project that equipped radio-controlled cars with magnets that tracked a steel cable buried in the road.68

A 1954 story in Popular Science heralded the arrival of an “educated gas pedal” that allowed drivers to set a maximum speed for their cars to avoid exceeding the speed limit. The magazine said the device “definitely takes us several miles farther down the road toward automatic pilots for cars.” Four years later, Chrysler unveiled an “autopilot” feature, comparable to today's cruise control.69

In 1958, Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seat belt featuring a waist restraint combined with a shoulder strap, a breakthrough in automotive safety. Volvo hired Bohlin and became the first car company to make seat belts standard equipment in new cars. By the time Bohlin died in 2002, Volvo estimated that his three-point restraint had saved more than 1 million lives.70

By the end of the decade, a world where driverless cars were commonplace was supposedly just around the corner. A 1956 utility industry magazine ad shows a family riding down the highway in a glass-domed car, with the father behind the wheel but ignoring it to play dominoes with his wife and two children.

A 1961 illustration shows (Getty Images/GraphicaArtis)
A 1961 illustration shows a futuristic self-driving car. Even then, U.S. car companies were envisioning a day when autonomous technology would replace human drivers. (Getty Images/GraphicaArtis)

“One day your car may speed along an electric super-highway, its speed and steering automatically controlled by electronic devices embedded in the road,” the caption reads. “Highways will be made safe — by electricity! No traffic jams … no collisions … no driver fatigue.”71

Consumer activist Ralph Nader's influential book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile appeared in 1965. The best-seller, best known for its scathing critique of the Chevrolet Corvair, criticized car manufacturers for not installing safety technology like seat belts and spurred a national conversation on car safety. It also motivated federal officials to form the Department of Transportation and, later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.72

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill requiring carmakers to install lap-type seatbelts for every seat in every car starting in 1968.

The first movie featuring a self-driving car was The Love Bug, which came out in 1968 and starred a Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie with its own personality. The popular movie spawned three sequels over the next 15 years.73

Stanford University engineer and computer science pioneer John McCarthy, who coined the term “artificial intelligence,” published an essay on computer-controlled cars in 1969 that described vehicles in which passengers would use a keyboard to enter their destination.74

Traffic fatalities continued to rise, reaching 56,278 in 1972, a record that remains unbroken. But the fatality rate per 100 million annual vehicle miles driven that year was 4.43, down from the all-time high of 21.65 recorded in the early 1920s.75

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the Defense Department, funded an Autonomous Land Vehicle Project during the 1980s. The program produced the first car to use lidar and computerized decision-making to follow a road.76

Early Competitions

German engineer Ernst Dickmanns, a pioneer in using cameras, sensors and computers to teach cars to “see,” demonstrated a self-driving car in 1986 at Bundeswehr University in Munich, where he taught. The following year, he tested the car on an unopened section of a German highway, and in 1994, French officials agreed to let Dickmanns test two self-driving Mercedes limousines that could move at 80 mph, change lanes, react to other cars and brake by themselves (all with human backup drivers behind the wheel, just in case). Today, Germany holds almost half of all patents related to self-driving technology.77

In 1995, Dean Pomerleau and Todd Jochem, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, outfitted a Pontiac minivan with driverless technology and drove it from Pittsburgh to San Diego in the first long-distance test of self-driving technology. The vehicle's “brain” used algorithms designed to learn with experience. The minivan steered itself, but Pomerleau and Jochem controlled speed and braking. They called their trip “No Hands Across America.”78

DARPA's Grand Challenge, held on March 13, 2004, marked the agency's first attempt to use the lure of prize money to spur innovations in driverless technology. Fifteen cars were supposed to follow a 142-mile course through the Mojave Desert. DARPA promised a $1 million prize to the first car to complete the course in under 10 hours.

None of the vehicles made it beyond 7.5 miles. Some crashed. Others got hung up on rocks, barbed wire or other obstacles. One Jeep Cherokee made a U-turn almost immediately and returned to the starting line.79

But DARPA officials nevertheless saw promise in the failures. “That first competition created a community of innovators, engineers, students, programmers, off-road racers, backyard mechanics, inventors and dreamers who came together to make history by trying to solve a tough technical problem,” said Lt. Col. Scott Wadle, DARPA's liaison to the Marine Corps. “The fresh thinking they brought was the spark that has triggered major advances in the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology in the years since.”80

DARPA's second Grand Challenge, held in October 2005, produced more-impressive results. Five of 195 teams finished a 175-mile course in less than 10 hours, with Stanford University's entry — a self-driving Volkswagen Touareg named Stanley — winning $2 million for finishing in six hours and 53 minutes. Sebastian Thrun, one of the engineers behind Stanley, went on to lead Google's self-driving car project.81

Sebastian Thrun (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Sebastian Thrun, a member of the Stanford University team that won a 2005 AV competition hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, sits atop the team's winning car, named Stanley. Thrun ran Google's self-driving car project between 2010 and 2012. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

In 2009, Google began testing its self-driving cars in the San Francisco Bay Area. Three years later, Nevada granted an operating license to a Toyota Prius modified with Google's self-driving technology, the first license issued in the country for a self-driving car.82

In 2014, Google unveiled a self-driving car prototype — the Firefly — that had no steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal and looked somewhat like a koala. “We wanted your experience in the first time you're in a truly self-driving car to be not scary, to be friendly, to be fun,” said Chris Urmson, who was chief technology officer at Google's self-driving car project and is now CEO at self-driving car company Aurora in Palo Alto, Calif. By 2015, the Firefly's technology had advanced to where it could transport a blind person with no human backup.83

With a top speed of 25 mph, the Firefly debuted some of the hallmarks of Waymo's later efforts, including the dome on the car's roof that housed sensors, lidar and other instruments. Google retired the car in June 2017 in favor of Chrysler minivans. By that time, the fleet of Fireflies had logged millions of miles on the road.84

Fatal Accidents

That same month, Joshua Brown, a former Navy SEAL, was killed when his Tesla Model S collided with a truck near Williston, Fla. The car's Autopilot system was engaged at the time of the crash. The NTSB said the Autopilot system warned Brown repeatedly to take the wheel in the 37 minutes before the crash, but he apparently did so for only 25 seconds.

“Tesla allowed the driver to use the system outside the environment for which it was designed, and the system gave far too much leeway to the driver to divert his attention to something other than driving,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said in 2017.85

Tesla later updated its self-driving technology to temporarily prevent drivers from using Autopilot if they fail to respond when warned to take the wheel.86

In September 2017, the U.S. House unanimously passed the Self Drive Act, which laid out a framework for regulating the driverless car industry. “With this legislation, innovation can flourish without the heavy hand of government,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, then-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection.87 A companion bill, the AV Start Act, was introduced in the Senate the same month.

In October that year, Waymo began operating its self-driving minivans on public roads in Arizona without any passengers and with no human driver behind the wheel. “Fully self-driving cars are here,” Waymo CEO Krafcik said at the time.88

The accident involving the self-driving Uber occurred five months later, killing Elaine Herzberg as she walked a bicycle across the street in Tempe. It was the first case of a self-driving car being involved in an accident that killed a pedestrian. The same month, another Tesla operating in Autopilot mode was involved in a fatal crash, this time on a highway in Mountain View, Calif.

The NTSB found that the driver, Walter Huang, had taken the wheel three times in the 60 seconds before the Tesla collided with a highway barrier, but his hands were not on the wheel during the six seconds before the crash. It also found that the Tesla sped up from 62 mph to 70.8 mph in the last three seconds before the collision. The NTSB has not yet issued a finding of probable cause in the accident.89

In October 2018, California issued Waymo a permit to operate autonomous vehicles without a human driver in five Silicon Valley-area neighborhoods. The permit allows the company to test its cars on city streets, rural roads and highways, day or night.

“Our vehicles can safely handle fog and light rain, and testing in those conditions is included in our permit,” the company said. “We will gradually begin driverless testing on city streets in a limited territory and, over time, expand the area that we drive in as we gain confidence and experience to expand.”90

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Current Situation

Legislative Debate

Supporters of congressional legislation to regulate driverless cars say lawmakers likely will make another push for passage this year. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., a co-sponsor of the House-passed Self Drive Act, said backers of that proposal will first work with supporters of the AV Start Act in the Senate to come up with a new bill.

“We're going to have to figure out the common ground,” Dingell said.91

Supporters of the House bill say such legislation is needed to keep the United States competitive in the driverless car market. “We want to make sure that the technology that is out there is U.S. technology and we're developing it here,” Latta said.92

Getting self-driving cars on U.S. roadways quickly, and with a minimum of regulatory hurdles, would drastically lower traffic deaths and “protect against a patchwork of [state] regulations that could only delay or complicate the deployment of this important technology,” Uber and Waymo wrote in a joint letter to the Senate last March.93

But consumer advocates say both congressional proposals so far lack key provisions — including minimum performance standards for driverless cars — needed to protect people riding inside the cars as well as pedestrians and bicyclists.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group in Washington that promotes safety on U.S. roads, said the Senate bill could allow the industry “to sell mass quantities of experimental driverless cars that do not have to meet federal safety standards — essentially turning public streets and highways into industry proving grounds.”94

Cities Prepare

Debate over the congressional legislation comes as about half the cities in the country are making self-driving cars part of their long-range transportation plans, up from 10 percent in 2015, according to the National League of Cities, an advocacy organization in Washington.

“In the near future, self-driving technology will not only migrate to our cars but will also impact urban transportation methods like buses and subway systems,” the league said in an October report.95

Four cities in Ohio, for example — Athens, Columbus, Dublin and Marysville — plan to test autonomous vehicles on public roads. The state's first driverless shuttle service, Smart Circuit, has been operating, with human backup drivers, in Columbus since December.96

A self-driving car (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
A self-driving car being used to test grocery delivery sits outside a supermarket in Scottsdale, Ariz., last August. Other programs are testing driverless taxis and restaurant-delivery vehicles. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Providence, R.I., will begin operating a fleet of electric, driverless shuttle buses this spring as part of a one-year pilot program. The buses will have a top speed of 25 mph and have an attendant on board who will take control of the bus if necessary.

The program will cost $800,000 and will be run by May Mobility, a company in Ann Arbor, Mich., that works with communities to develop self-driving vehicle projects. State officials will pay for the program using $300,000 in federal research money and $500,000 from a settlement between Volkswagen and state attorneys general over fraudulent emissions testing.97

State officials in Illinois want to make their state a national leader in researching driverless cars that will communicate with each other and with traffic control devices installed in streets. “This technology is here and Illinois is ready to embrace it,” then-Gov. Bruce Rauner said in October. “Working with our public and private partners, we can make our roads safer, save lives, attract investment and create new high-tech jobs throughout the state.”98

But Abate of Illinois, a political action committee that promotes motorcycle-friendly state laws and regulations, criticized the move, accusing state officials of “turning Illinois roads into a field experiment for an unproven technology still in its infancy while providing very few safeguards to the public.”99

Bad weather, meanwhile, continues to be among the most vexing challenges facing the driverless car industry.

Snow, for example, “not only alters the vehicle's traction but also changes how the vehicle's cameras and sensors perceive the street,” said the 2018 report from the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group.100

Heavy fog in San Francisco presents similar problems. So do rainstorms in Seattle and dust storms in Phoenix.

Xavier Mosquet, senior partner with the Boston Consulting Group, said it will take Waymo or another leading AV company at least two more years to write software to handle such weather conditions.

“If you aren't able to drive one hour a week, people will understand,” he says. “But if it's four or five hours a day, it doesn't work for a market.”101

A number of companies are working on possible solutions to the weather problems facing driverless cars:

• WaveSense, a startup in Boston, uses ground-penetrating radar to map roads used by driverless cars. The cars can use those maps to pinpoint their location with what the company calls “centimeter level accuracy” — even when inclement weather is confusing other sensors.102

• Alchemy, in Ontario, Canada, is working to develop nanocoatings — ultra-thin films that help keep surfaces, like a camera lens, free of water, ice and debris — for the sensors used by autonomous cars.103

• Mighty AI, located in Seattle and Boston, focuses on improving the datasets that driverless cars use to make sense of the world around them. “We convert raw, unlabeled data into useful high-quality data, pairing machine learning with human intelligence,” the company says.104

Attacks by Humans

In addition to stormy weather, driverless car companies also must deal with people who vandalize the vehicles or find it entertaining to come to a sudden stop in front of them. Human attacks accounted for a third of the traffic accidents involving self-driving cars in California last year, with many of the incidents taking place in San Francisco.105

People also are attacking the driverless cars that Waymo is testing in Chandler, Ariz. People have thrown rocks at the vehicles, slashed their tires and run them off the road.106

In one of the more serious incidents, Roy Leonard Haselton, 69, was arrested in August in Chandler and charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct for allegedly waving a gun at a self-driving Waymo with an emergency driver at the wheel. “Haselton stated that he despises and hates those cars,” police reported.107

Waymo rarely pursues charges in such cases. Following Haselton's arrest, the company released a statement saying, “This is a rare circumstance … and it doesn't reflect the positive community response we've received from people who are excited and curious about self-driving technology.”108

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Job-Related Fears

Some of the anger directed at self-driving cars is linked to expectations they will throw people out of work who make a living driving, said Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media theory at City University of New York and author of the 2016 book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.

“People are lashing out justifiably,” Rushkoff said. “There's a growing sense that the giant corporations honing driverless technologies do not have our best interests at heart. Just think about the humans inside these vehicles, who are essentially training the artificial intelligence that will replace them.”109

The millions of people who earn their living driving should brace for the possibility that automated vehicles will gradually replace them, experts say. Such vehicles, for example, will eliminate about 300,000 jobs from the trucking industry each year starting in 2042, according to economists at the Goldman Sachs investment firm. TuSimple, a Chinese company with offices in San Diego, is an example of a firm that is working to develop artificial intelligence technology for autonomous trucks.110

But autonomous vehicles also will create jobs for software engineers, sensor technicians, dispatchers and workers to monitor the location and status of driverless vehicles that belong to ride-share fleets, employment experts say. “Autonomous cars are going to largely eliminate jobs [people] weren't interested in and create opportunities in work that people will find more rewarding,” argued Ian Siegel, co-founder and CEO of ZipRecruiter, a job search website.111

States and cities are bracing for the expected impact of driverless cars, which experts say could require a vast overhaul of transportation infrastructure. Radio transmitters might replace traffic lights, conduit for fiber optic cable might be added under roadways and digital devices might be installed along travel routes to communicate with the cars.

“They can drive themselves, but boy, we can really help them,” Ben Pierce, transportation technology lead for the engineering and architecture firm HDR in Omaha, Neb., said of autonomous cars. Driverless cars, for example, still have trouble recognizing potholes.112

State highway planners say it will cost billions in public money to prepare the nation's 4 million miles of paved roads and 250,000 intersections for widespread use of autonomous cars. Congress, meanwhile, still has not passed legislation to provide an estimated $1.5 trillion to repair the nation's crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure.113

The trade-off from such a massive investment in better roads could be fewer parking lots, garages and new-road construction, as autonomous vehicles make travel more efficient and operate as taxis and shuttles and make deliveries, according to some environmental researchers.

“There are more than a billion parking spaces in America,” said Nico Larco, who teaches architecture and environment at the University of Oregon and co-directs the school's Sustainable Cities Initiative. “If AVs are doing all the driving, we can get rid of 90 percent of them.”114

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Will widespread use of driverless cars reduce traffic congestion?


Kara Kockelman
DeWitt Greer Professor of Transportation Engineering, University of Texas at Austin. Written for CQ Researcher, January 2019

Connected, fully automated vehicles (CAVs), which use electronic links to communicate with other CAVs and roadway infrastructure, eventually will be able to do a number of things better than human drivers can, so roadway networks may one day work much better than they do today. But a number of policies will be necessary to make sure CAVs decrease rather than increase traffic congestion. Those include requiring that CAVs follow each other more closely than human drivers do, and that they communicate with each other instantaneously and continuously regarding position, speed, acceleration and direction of travel to avoid collisions and enable smart intersection management.

Communities should require that at least one person occupy every privately owned CAV on public roadways when traffic congestion is most likely. It will also be necessary to restrict the percentage of “empty” miles that CAV fleets — like those owned by ride-hailing companies — travel without passengers. A 20 percent cap would be ideal initially, falling to 15 percent or less over time.

Most importantly, to ensure that CAVs help, rather than harm, current levels of roadway congestion, communities will have to introduce value pricing on congested roadways. That means all cars, including CAVs, would pay tolls to take faster routes, and would avoid driving when tolls are high. Each traveler would receive monthly travel credits — or budgets — to ensure equal access to the shared network. Such credits could also be used for trains, buses, e-scooters, shared bikes and ride-hailing services. Credit-based congestion pricing would eliminate a “tragedy of the commons” — in which individuals’ self-interest harms the greater good — in the form of traffic jams.

Credit-based congestion pricing policies are the best way to avoid traffic jams on roadways. In reality, only major bottlenecks (like narrow bridges) need to be priced to relieve congestion across many roads at many times of day. But CAVs would allow for lane-by-lane and real-time value pricing of roadways at much lower administrative and infrastructure costs than we face today.

CAV technology would allow high-speed toll-charging that eliminates the need for large gantry structures over roadways, and CAVs will be able to move through intersections with maximum efficiency. But first, CAVs must demonstrate that they can operate safely at tight following distances and employ smart congestion-avoidance strategies, through deep machine learning, for example. If those conditions are met, the future looks exciting and promising.


Paul Mackie
Director of Research and Communications, Mobility Lab. Written for CQ Researcher, January 2019

Fleets of autonomous vehicles that connect people to a core transit network are an ideal version of our transportation future. But that will require some serious teamwork and a New Deal-type approach to improving the awful traffic crippling many cities.

A number of factors make it unlikely that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be highly effective at solving our traffic congestion problems.

Bad infrastructure and an even worse political climate are two of those factors. In addition, the people who plan the space in our cities are a car-centric bunch who have struggled with the introduction of new factors like the Uber ride-hailing service, dockless scooters and bike-sharing.

So far, people have shown little desire to ride in an autonomous vehicle. To change that, car companies will need a pretty strong messaging campaign making the case that AVs will save 40,000 American lives annually by reducing car crashes. Yet, if they succeed in making that case and start selling millions of AVs to individuals, congestion will only get worse.

Technology itself, believe it or not, may be the best hope for avoiding personally owned AVs. That's because of the “Waze effect,” Google's traffic-avoiding app. Waze is causing once-quiet neighborhoods to be torn apart by drivers staring at their phones and speeding dangerously as they try to avoid waiting at the next stoplight for an extra 30 seconds. It's kind of like what interstates have done to communities across America for the past 50 years.

Another issue is that we Americans have a fundamental sharing problem. If we can't do AV fleets better than other, similar concepts — think carpools and buses — then there will be many people who won't even consider AVs.

Uber and Lyft are good proxies for AVs in a lot of ways. Transportation experts are struggling with ride-hailing because it may not be socially beneficial in terms of traffic. This is largely because of “deadheading,” the practice of circling around and around looking for passengers. Deadheading happens quite often. Now, consider how AVs — which won't be carrying even a single person much of the time — will make that even worse.

All these factors are bad news for AVs and our traffic congestion problem. It will likely take truly catastrophic traffic, on a city-by-city basis, before all the players work together to forge the right path for autonomous vehicles.

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1925–1970Radio-controlled cars hint at a driverless future.
1925Francis Houdina, an electrical engineer and inventor, operates a remote-controlled driverless car in Manhattan.
1939General Motors’ “Futurama” exhibit at the World's Fair in New York City anticipates an era when cars drive themselves.
1956GM's Firebird II concept car features an automated driving system in which the car receives commands through wires embedded in the road.
1958The Chrysler Imperial becomes the first car to offer cruise control…. Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin invents the three-point seat belt.
1968The federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard takes effect, requiring all vehicles except buses to come with seat belts.
1969Computer scientist and artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy describes a future in which driverless cars feature a keyboard that people use to type in their destination.
1970–2000Driver-assistance technology advances.
1972U.S. traffic accidents kill more than 56,000 people, a record that still stands.
1984New York is first state to require car occupants to use a seat belt.
1994Self-driving car designed by German engineer Ernst Dickmanns carries passengers through traffic in France.
1995In the first long-distance test of self-driving car technology, Carnegie Mellon researchers Dean Pomerleau and Todd Jochem ride in their driverless Pontiac minivan from Pittsburgh to San Diego.
1998Air bags become mandatory in U.S. cars.
1999Toyota develops an automatic parallel parking feature that becomes available four years later on Prius hybrid and Lexus autos.
2000–PresentStates pass laws to regulate the driverless car industry.
2004The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) holds its first Grand Challenge, a competition for driverless cars, in the Mojave Desert. None of the participating vehicles completes the course, but five complete the second Grand Challenge the following year.
2005Inventor David Hall develops a driverless car system that uses lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors to create a 3D map of a car's surroundings.
2009Google launches a secret self-driving car project in the San Francisco Bay area.
2011Nevada becomes the first state to allow the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads.
2014Google unveils the self-driving Firefly, a slow-moving experimental car with no steering wheel or brake pedal…. Tesla introduces Autopilot, the most advanced semi-autonomous driving system marketed commercially.
2016Google spins off its self-driving car project, which becomes Waymo, owned by Alphabet, Google's parent company.
2017U.S. House passes the Self Drive Act laying out a framework for federal regulation of driverless cars.
2018A self-driving car operated by ride-share company Uber hits and kills a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz. (March)…. A semi-autonomous Tesla crashes in California in the second fatal accident in the U.S. involving a Tesla using its Autopilot mode (March)…. California allows Waymo to test cars without human drivers (October)…. Waymo starts a self-driving taxi service in Arizona (December)…. The AV Start Act, a companion bill to the Self Drive Act, stalls in the Senate, with some Democrats saying it gives too much power to the industry and contains too few safety protections.

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Short Features

China plans to have 30 million driverless vehicles within 10 years.

The United States is far from the only country pursuing a future in which self-driving cars dominate the roads. Around the world, companies are experimenting with smart-vehicle technologies, and governments are moving forward with policies on how and where such vehicles operate.

Some industry experts say China is a leading contender to dominate the field. Last April officials in Beijing approved national guidelines for self-driving cars, something the U.S. Congress has not yet done. The guidelines allow testing of autonomous vehicles in any Chinese city. Four months earlier, China's National Development and Reform Commission, the country's top economic planning agency, unveiled a three-year plan making the production of driverless cars a national priority.1

Such goals are more easily achieved in China, auto industry experts say, because its one-party, authoritarian government makes regulatory decisions much more quickly than is possible in a democracy. “The Chinese government can and will facilitate autonomous driving sooner than we will in the United States,” said Michael Dunne, CEO of ZoZo Go, an automotive investment advisory firm in Hong Kong.2

China plans to have 30 million autonomous vehicles on its roads within a decade. Already, it is the top auto-producing country in the world, making more cars each year than the next four producers — Japan, Germany, the United States and South Korea — combined. The Chinese market for self-driving cars could be worth $500 billion by 2020, according to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in New York.3

Driverless cars also may be more accepted in China than in the United States. In a survey released in February 2017 by TÜV Rheinland, a company in Cologne, Germany, that provides product inspection and certification services, 63 percent of Chinese drivers said autonomous cars will make driving safer, compared to 34 percent of U.S. drivers. And 71 percent of Chinese drivers said they trust carmakers’ competence to protect autonomous cars from cybersecurity threats such as hacking, compared to 41 percent of U.S. drivers.4

A report released in January 2018, however, ranked China only 16th among 20 countries in “openness and preparedness” for driverless cars. The report, based on each country's policies, technology, infrastructure and consumer acceptance related to self-driving cars, ranked the Netherlands first, followed by Singapore and the United States. The report noted that China's readiness for automated cars “is undermined by poor ratings for roads and a very low score for technology infrastructure.”5

Waymo, a driverless car technology company in Mountain Valley, Calif., owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is considered the global leader in such technology among private firms. Waymo, which began as part of Google but was later spun off as a subsidiary company, started testing autonomous vehicles in 2009. The company says cars equipped with its technology have logged more than 10 million miles on the road.6 But Chinese companies are racing to catch up.

Baidu, China's top internet search company, announced last July plans to mass-produce a self-driving minibus — called Apolong — that runs on Apollo, the company's autonomous-vehicle software platform. Two of the buses began operating on a trial basis at a park in Beijing in November.7

Visitors at the CES Asia show (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Qilai Shen)
Visitors at the CES Asia show in Shanghai last June check out a self-driving minibus built by Baidu, China's top internet search company. China aims to have 30 million self-driving vehicles by 2030. (Getty Images/Bloomberg/Qilai Shen)

Baidu also has teamed up with U.S. automaker Ford to build self-driving vehicles and test them on Beijing roads, and is working on autonomous car technology with Daimler, Hyundai and other automotive companies.8 In November, Baidu said its software was being installed in Swedish-made Volvos designed to run in driverless mode under most conditions.9

“The scale of [Baidu's] platform demonstrates that China, the largest car market in the world, also wants to become a superpower in automated driving,” wrote Joachim Becker, a German technology editor.10

Tencent, the Chinese tech giant, opened a self-driving car laboratory in Beijing in 2016. Other Chinese companies, including e-commerce firm Alibaba and Didi, a ride-sharing, artificial intelligence and autonomous technology firm, also have begun research projects focused on self-driving cars.11

Outside China, South Korean automaker Hyundai and German automaker Volkswagen have begun testing driverless cars in South Korea, and Hyundai has announced plans to sell self-driving cars by 2020. In 2017, South Korea opened K-City, a 79-acre model town where the country is testing autonomous vehicles in a variety of situations and environments.12 Volvo has said it will unveil its first self-driving car in 2021 and may introduce the vehicle in the United Arab Emirates.13

Volkswagen executives said in August they want to have the company's SEDRIC (for SElf-DRIving Car) operating on roads in the United States within three years, followed by rollouts in Asia and the Middle East. Company executives said they won't introduce the cars in Europe until the European Union (EU) finalizes national regulations for autonomous vehicles. “It's our home market, but the legislation just isn't there,” said Johann Jungwirth, Volkwagen's executive vice president of mobility services.

Last May, the EU announced a set of proposals for regulating autonomous cars, with the goal of eliminating road fatalities in Europe by 2050. Between October 24 and December 4, the European Commission, the EU's governing body, solicited opinions from the public and the auto industry on cybersecurity, legal issues and other challenges involved in developing driverless car technology. The commission plans to issue proposed legislation on driverless car standards within a few months.

“The ambition is to make Europe a world leader in the deployment of connected and automated mobility,” EU officials said.14

— Stephen Ornes

[1] Yiting Sun, “China's new autonomous-vehicle rules let any of its cities test robo-cars,” The Download blog post, Technology Review, April 13, 2018,; Daniel Ren et al., “Smart, self-driving and electric: China's vision for the car industry on full view at Auto China 2018 show in Beijing,” South China Morning Post, July 3, 2018,

[2] Rosie Perper, “China is preparing for a trillion-dollar autonomous-driving revolution,” Business Insider, Dec. 14, 2017,

[3] “Which country produces most cars?” worldometers, March 2, 2018,; Yan Zhang, David Ramli and Lulu Chen, “Wanted in China: Detailed Maps for 30 Million Self-Driving Cars,” Bloomberg, Aug. 22, 2018,

[4] Karen Hao, “China is poised to lead in self-driving cars — and it's not because of technology,” Quartz, Feb. 21, 2018,; “TÜV Rheinland Releases Wide-Ranging Study on Global Consumer Perception of Autonomous Vehicle Safety,” press release, TÜV Rheinland, Feb. 20, 2018,

[5] “Automotive Vehicles Readiness Index,” KPMG International, 2018,

[6] Stephen McBride, “The Driverless Car Revolution Has Begun — Here's How To Profit,” Forbes, Sept. 6, 2018,; Kirsten Korosec, “Waymo's self-driving cars hit 10 million miles,” TechCrunch, Oct. 10, 2018,

[7] “Baidu's self-driving bus begins mass production.”, July 5, 2018,; “Baidu conducts trial operation of Apolong L4 autonomous bus in Beijing,” Gasgoo, Nov. 23, 2018,

[8] Andrew Krok, “Volvo, Baidu partner to bring electric autonomous cars to China,” CNET, Nov. 1, 2018,

[9] Douglas A. Bolduc, “Volvo, Baidu team up for Level 4 autonomous EVs in China,” Automotive News, Nov. 1, 2018,

[10] Joachim Becker, “Waymo or Baidu & co. — who will win the robot car race?” 2025 AD, Aug. 16, 2018,

[11] Echo Huang, “Every big tech firm in China is becoming a self-driving car company,” Quartz, April 17, 2018,

[12] Karen Hao, “The latest fake town built for self-driving cars has opened in South Korea.” Quartz, Nov. 6, 2017,

[13] Alkesh Sharma, “Volvo's self-driving cars will start in Europe in 2021 before coming to the UAE,” The National, Sept. 26, 2018,

[14] “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions: On the road to automated mobility: An EU strategy for mobility of the future,” European Commission, May 17, 2018,; “The European Commission Launches a Public Consultation on Connected and Automated Vehicles,” Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Lexology, Nov. 15, 2018,



Burns, Lawrence, and Christopher Shulgan , Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car — and How it Will Reshape Our World , HarperCollins, 2018. A mobility consultant and former General Motors vice president (Burns) and a writer (Shulgan) trace the history of autonomous cars.

Lipson, Hod, and Melba Kurman , Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead , MIT Press, 2016. A Columbia University engineering professor (Lipson) and a technology analyst (Kurman) explain the risks and benefits of driverless cars and the artificial intelligence software that makes them possible.

Schwartz, Samuel , No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future , PublicAffairs, 2018. A transportation expert and former New York City traffic commissioner examines how self-driving cars will affect society, including their impact on commuting and the ethical issues they present.

Wadhwa, Vivek, and Alex Salkever , The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future , Berrett-Koehler, 2017. A Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor (Wadhwa) and a writer and technology expert (Salkever) explain that, along with their benefits, driverless cars and other technologies present dangers, including loss of personal privacy and widening income inequality.


Hotchkiss, Ralf , “Safety first? AV Start Act veers off course for disabled riders,” The Hill, Oct. 6, 2018, A wheelchair-bound inventor and engineer says a federal legislative proposal to regulate driverless cars would not benefit people with disabilities and might actually threaten their safety.

Roy, Alex , “Why human driving will never die,” The Drive, Sept. 5, 2018, The editor-at-large at an automotive website celebrates the joy of driving and says car-lovers will not easily turn over control of their vehicles to driverless technology.

Silver, David , “What Hurdles Do Self-Driving Cars Face As Waymo Gets Ready For Prime Time?” Forbes, Oct. 5, 2018, At least some of the technological, ethical and other challenges that experts say face the driverless car industry are not as daunting as portrayed, according to an engineer who teaches engineering students how to work on autonomous cars.

Swisher, Kara , “Full transcript: Self-driving car engineer Chris Urmson on Recode Decode,” Recode Decode, Sept. 8, 2017, The CEO of Aurora, a self-driving car startup in Palo Alto, Calif., talks about the sometimes amusing setbacks and victories he has experienced while working to develop driverless car technology.

Thompson, Derek , “How Self-Driving Cars Could Ruin the American City,” The Atlantic, Sept. 6, 2018, A magazine writer takes a test ride in an autonomous car and looks at how the widespread use of driverless cars could make commutes more productive and entertaining or could bring “infernal congestion” to city streets.

Reports and Studies

Fraade-Blanar, Laura , et al., “Measuring Automated Vehicle Safety: Forging a Framework,” RAND, 2018, Researchers at a California think tank propose guidelines for defining and measuring safety standards for automated vehicles.

Kerry, Cameron F., and Jack Karsten , “Gauging investment in self-driving cars,” Brookings Institution, Oct. 16, 2017, Analysts at a Washington think tank say investments in autonomous vehicles total more than $80 billion.

Smith, Aaron, and Monica Anderson , “Americans’ attitudes toward driverless vehicles,” Pew Research Center, 2017, A research organization in Washington says most Americans expect driverless vehicles to become widespread within 50 years but are more worried than enthusiastic about the prospect.

Stern, Raphael E. , et al., “Dissipation of stop-and-go waves via control of autonomous vehicles: Field experiments,” arxiv, May 4, 2017, University researchers explain how putting only a few autonomous cars on the road could help ease traffic jams.

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The Next Step

Industry Competitors

Ferris, Robert , “GM Cruise and DoorDash are partnering on autonomous food deliveries,” CNBC, Jan. 3, 2019, Cruise, the self-driving car company acquired by General Motors, is collaborating with food delivery company DoorDash to test the use of autonomous cars to make food deliveries in the San Francisco area.

Ohnsman, Alan , “Women Aren't Running Self-Driving Car Startups; Zoox Is About To Change That,” Forbes, Jan. 21, 2019, Aicha Evans, chief strategy officer at Intel, will be the only woman running a driverless vehicle tech firm when she takes over self-driving startup Zoox in February.

Welch, David, and Elisabeth Behrmann , “Who's Winning the Self-Driving Car Race?” Bloomberg, May 7, 2018, Seven companies, including Waymo and GM, have emerged as clear leaders in the race to develop autonomous car technology.


Akin, Stephanie , “Driverless Industry Surges Forward While Hill Hiccups on Regulation,” Roll Call, Dec. 17, 2018, Federal legislation to regulate the AV industry stalled in the Senate last year, largely over concerns among some lawmakers that the bill would not do enough to protect consumers’ safety.

Rainwater, Brooks, and Nicole Dupuis , “Cities Have Taken the Lead in Regulating Driverless Vehicles,” CityLab, Oct. 23, 2018, As federal and state officials take a mostly permissive stance on regulating driverless vehicles, cities are increasingly taking action to control how and where such vehicles operate.

Waddell, Kaveh, and Kia Kokalitcheva , “States are sewing a patchwork of AV regulations,” Axios, Oct. 27, 2018, Driverless car companies fear that differences among state laws regulating the industry will make it more difficult for them to develop driverless technology.


Holmes, Freddie , “In future, the autonomous car may have its eye on you,” Automotive World, Jan. 23, 2019, In the future, facial recognition software could help ensure that people using driverless vehicles remain alert enough to take the wheel in an emergency.

McDermid, John , “Self-driving cars: why we can't expect them to be ‘moral,’” The Conversation, Jan. 24, 2019, Researchers should be developing new safety technology for AVs instead of trying to program them to make the kind of life-and-death moral choices sometimes involved in car accidents, according to a software engineering professor in Britain.

Naughton, Keith , “Just How Safe Is Driverless Car Technology, Really?” Bloomberg, March 27, 2018, A March 2018 incident in which a driverless car operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona has raised new concerns about the safety of autonomous cars.

Walker, Alissa , “Are self-driving cars safe for our cities?” Curbed, Oct. 4, 2018, Proponents of self-driving cars see them as a solution to an epidemic of traffic deaths, but critics say such predictions are overblown.

Traffic Congestion

Baldassari, Erin , “Autonomous vehicles will lead to more traffic, pollution, sprawl — unless we act now, study says,” The Mercury News, Jan. 23, 2019, Unless cities adopt strategies for dealing with autonomous cars — such as encouraging people to participate in ride-sharing — such cars could make traffic congestion worse.

Markoff, John , “Urban Planning Guru Says Driverless Cars Won't Fix Congestion,” The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2018, Self-driving public transportation options would do more to alleviate traffic congestion than widespread private ownership of autonomous cars, according to an urban planner in California.

Mraz, Stephen , “Turning Autonomous Cars into Traffic Managers,” Machine Design, Jan. 11, 2019, New research focuses on using machine learning to manage traffic and make sure autonomous cars share the road efficiently with human drivers.

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Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
750 First St., N.E., Suite 1130, Washington, DC 20002
Alliance of consumer, medical, public health and other groups that works to advance safety requirements for driverless cars.

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers
803 7th St., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20001
Trade group that advocates for the auto industry and tracks the development of self-driving cars.

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International
2700 S. Quincy St., Suite 400, Arlington, VA, 22206
Trade group focused on the development of robotic vehicles, including autonomous cars.

Consumer Technology Association
1919 S. Eads St., Arlington, VA 22202
Trade association that hosts the annual Consumer Electronics Show and advocates for entrepreneurs developing technology for driverless cars.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Ave., S.E., Washington, DC 20590
U.S. Department of Transportation agency that issues rules and guidelines for AVs.

SAE International
400 Commonwealth Drive, Warrendale, PA 15096
Professional association that sets standards for the automotive industry and has developed commonly accepted definitions for different levels of autonomous driving.

Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets
Lobbying group established by Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo and Waymo that works to advance public acceptance of driverless vehicles.

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[1] “Ford and Argo embrace a steep self-driving learning curve in Miami,” Automotive News, Nov. 26, 2018,; Andrew J. Hawkins, “Ford's self-driving cars are really good, but are they good enough to win?” The Verge, Nov. 15, 2018,; and Andrew Small, “When Self-Driving Cars Meet Florida Drivers,” CityLab, Dec. 4, 2018,

[2] Hawkins, ibid.

[3] Vivek Wadhwa, “Self-driving cars should leave us all unsettled. Here's why,” The Washington Post, April 24, 2017,

[4] Victor Haydin, “It's Time to Give Autonomous Cars an Ethics Lesson,” Intellias, Aug. 2, 2018,

[5] Harvey Rosenfield, “Self-Driving Vehicles: The Threat to Consumers,” Consumer Watchdog, June 13, 2017,

[6] Roger Lanctot, “Accelerating the Future: The Economic Impact of the Emerging Passenger Economy,” Intel and Strategy Analytics, June 2017,

[7] Alex Davies, “The Wired Guide To Self-Driving Cars,” Wired, Dec. 13, 2018,

[8] John Rosevear, “Self-Driving Cars: Understanding the 6 Autonomous Levels,” The Motley Fool, Sept. 6, 2018,

[9] Jon Walker, “The Self-Driving Car Timeline — Predictions from the Top 11 Global Automakers,”, Dec. 21, 2018,

[10] Justin Hughes, “Waymo Is Already Running Self-Driving Cars With No One Behind the Wheel,” The Drive, Nov. 7, 2017,

[11] David Shepardson and Alexandria Sage, “Waymo gets first California OK for driverless testing without backup driver,” Reuters, Oct. 30, 2018,; Paul Sawers, “Alphabet's Waymo unveils its first commercial driverless taxi service: Waymo One,” Venture Beat, Dec. 5, 2018,

[12] Rob Verger, “Where to find self-driving cars on the road right now,” Popular Science, Jan. 4, 2019,

[13] Ibid.; Stephen McBride, “The Driverless Car Revolution Has Begun — Here's How To Profit,” Forbes, Sept. 6, 2018,

[14] McBride, ibid.; Peter Valdes-Dapena, “GM and DoorDash to deliver food in self-driving cars,” CNN, Jan. 4, 2019,; Ian Thibodeau, “Automakers face fight to stand out in driverless era,” Detroit News, Nov. 25, 2018,; Verger, op. cit.

[15] Verger, ibid.; “Zoox,” Zoox, undated,

[16] Lisa Beebe, “Self-Driving Vehicles Are Going to Dramatically Change L.A.’s Car Culture — and Soon,” Los Angeles Magazine, May 9, 2018,; Gene Munster, “Here's When Having a Self-Driving Car Will Be a Normal Thing,” Fortune, Sept. 13, 2017,

[17] Aarian Marshall, “Don't Ask When Self-Driving Cars Will Arrive — Ask Where,” Wired, Dec. 25, 2018,

[18] Paul Lienert, “Self-driving costs could drop 90 percent by 2025, Delphi CEO says,” Reuters, Dec. 4, 2017,

[19] Raphael E. Stern et al., “Dissipation of stop-and-go waves via control of autonomous vehicles: Field experiments,”; Dalvin Brown, “How self-driving car or adaptive cruise control could ease traffic jams,” USA Today, July 3, 2018,

[20] Jarrett Walker, “Self-Driving Cars: A Coming Congestion Disaster?” Human Transit blog, Nov. 25, 2015,

[21] Nathan Bomey, “More than 37,000 people were killed in car crashes in 2017, NHTSA reports,” USA Today, Oct. 3, 2018,; Ashley Halsey III, “Driverless cars promise far greater mobility for the elderly and people with disabilities,” The Washington Post, Nov. 23, 2017,

[22] John Naughton, “The crucial flaw of self-driving cars? They will always need human involvement,” The Guardian, July 15, 2018,

[23] “Preliminary Report: Highway HWY18MH010,” National Transportation Safety Board, undated,; Michael Laris, “Backup driver in fatal self-driving Uber crash was streaming Hulu,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2018,

[24] Lulu Chang and Luke Dormehl, “6 self-driving car crashes that tapped the brakes on the autonomous revolution,” Digital Trends, June 22, 2018,

[25] Ellen Edmonds, “AAA: American Trust in Autonomous Vehicles Slips,” AAA, May 22, 2018,

[26] “Autonomous Vehicles | Self-Driving Vehicles Enacted Legislation,” National Conference of State Legislatures, Nov. 7, 2018,; “Preparing for the Future of Transportation,” U.S. Department of Transportation, October 2018,

[27] “Automated Vehicles for Safety,” National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration,” September 2018,

[28] Small, op. cit.

[29] Stern, op. cit.

[30] Yuki Noguchi, “Self-Driving Cars Could Ease Our Commutes, But That'll Take A While,” WBUR, Feb. 10, 2017,

[31] “Reshaping Urban Mobility with Autonomous Vehicles Lessons from the City of Boston,” World Economic Forum, June 2018,

[32] Matthew Claudel and Carlo Ratti, “Full speed ahead: How the driverless car could transform cities,” McKinsey and Company, August 2015,

[33] “Preparing a Nation for Autonomous Vehicles,” Eno Center for Transportation, October 2013,

[34] “How an Automated Car Platoon Works,” U.S. Department of Transportation, July 31, 2017,

[35] Tilman Schneider, “Audi Study: No Congestion in the City of the Future,” Audi, Sept. 16, 2018,; Boguslaw Korzeniowski, “Audi study, 25th Hour — Flow: No Congestion in the City of the Future (Example City Ingolstadt),” Audi, Sept. 18, 2018,

[36] Marco della Cava, “What's it like to run errands in a self-driving car? Some Phoenix regulars are sold on Waymo,” USA Today, Oct. 10, 2018,; Andrew J. Hawkins, “Waymo's driverless cars hit a new milestone: 10 million miles on public roads,” The Verge, Oct. 10, 2018,

[37] “Automated Vehicles for Safety,” op. cit.

[38] “Road Safety Facts,” Association for Safe International Road Travel, undated,

[39] “GM is Taking Steering Wheels Out of Its Cars Starting in 2019,”, Jan. 14, 2018,

[40] Jeremy Martin, “When Will Autonomous Vehicles be Safe Enough? An interview with Professor Missy Cummings,” Union of Concerned Scientists, Sept. 25, 2018,

[41] “Autonomous Vehicles — The Beta Test Coming to a Roadway Near You,” Safety Research & Strategies, March 9, 2017,; “Report of Traffic Collision Involving an Autonomous Vehicle (OL 316),” State of California Department of Motor Vehicles, Dec. 21, 2018,; and Jack Stewart, “Why People Keep Rear-Ending Self-Driving Cars,” Wired, Oct. 18, 2018,

[42] Stewart, ibid.

[43] Peng Liu, Run Yang and Zhigang Xu, “How Safe Is Safe Enough for Self-Driving Vehicles?” Wiley Digital Archives, May 21, 2018,

[44] “How Safe Must Driverless Vehicles Be to Be Accepted? Very Safe,” Insurance Journal, May 31, 2018,

[45] Darrell West, “Brookings survey finds only 21 percent willing to ride in a self-driving car,” Brookings Institution, July 23, 2018,; Ashley Halsey III, “As driverless-car crashes mount, fear of riding in them rises, too,” The Washington Post, July 26, 2018,

[46] West, ibid.

[47] “Why Waiting for Perfect Autonomous Vehicles May Cost Lives,” RAND Corp., Nov. 7, 2017,

[48] Jim Guszcza, Harvey Lewis and Peter Evans-Greenwood, “Cognitive collaboration: Why humans and computers think better together,” Deloitte, Jan. 23, 2107,

[49] Rosenfield, op. cit.

[50] Andrew J. Hawkins, “Self-driving cars continue to face little resistance from the federal government,” The Verge, March 5, 2018,

[51] “Preparing for the Future of Transportation,” op. cit.

[52] Russ Mitchell, “Driverless cars on public highways? Go for it, Trump administration says,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 12, 2017,

[53] Andrew J. Hawkins, “US will rewrite safety rules to permit fully driverless cars on public roads,” The Verge, Oct. 4, 2018,

[54] Mitchell, op. cit.

[55] Eric Brandt, “Autonomous Cars Are Getting into Accidents Because They Drive Too Well,” The Drive, Oct. 10, 2017,; Mollie Cohen D'Agostino and Daniel Sperling, “Why Federal AV Policy Is a Necessary — But Not Sufficient — Step,” Forbes, Dec. 18, 2018,; and “States Are Sewing a Patchwork of AV Regulations — Should Self-Driving Cars Be a State Issue?” Axios, Sept. 28, 2018,

[56] Diana Stancy Correll, “New Congress looks at driverless cars,” Washington Examiner, Jan. 11, 2019,

[57] Sean O'Kane, “The US is speeding toward its first national law for self-driving cars,” The Verge, Sept. 6, 2017,

[58] Marc Scribner, “CEI Letter of Support for AV START Act,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, Oct. 2, 2017,

[59] Eric Kulisch, “Senate Democrats seek more oversight in self-driving vehicle bill,” Automotive News, March 14, 2018,

[60] “Riverside Daily Press, Volume XXXVI, Number 197, 19 August 1921,” California Digital Newspaper Collection, Aug. 19, 1921,

[61] “Radio-Driven Auto Runs Down Escort,” The New York Times, July 28, 1925,

[62] “Self Driving Car History,”, Dec. 4, 2015,; “‘Phantom Auto’ to Be Operated Here,” Free Lance Star, June 17, 1932,

[63] Ellen Kennerly, “Reducing Traffic Deaths,” CQ Researcher, Feb. 17, 2017, pp. 145–168; “Historical Fatality Trends: Car Crash Deaths and Rates,” National Safety Council, undated,

[64] “A History of Seat Belts,”, Sept. 14, 2016,

[65] “Self-Drive Cars and You: A History Longer than You Think,”, Aug. 5, 2014,

[66] “The Daily Banner, Greencastle, Putnam County, 15 May 1940,” Hoosier State Chronicles, May 15, 1940,

[67] Everett Griner, “Agri View: Driverless Tractors,” Merlo Farming Group, undated,

[68] J.M. Wetmore, Driving the Dream. The History and Motivations Behind 60 Years of Automated Highway Systems in America, Automotive History Review (2003).

[69] Frank Rowsome Jr., “Educated Gas Pedal Keeps the Cops Away,” Popular Science, January 1954,; Fabian Kröger, “Automated Driving in Its Social, Historical and Cultural Contexts,” Autonomous Driving, May 22, 2016,

[70] “A History of Seat Belts,” op. cit.

[71] David Hosansky, “Future of Cars,” CQ Researcher, July 25, 2014, pp. 625–648.

[72] Christopher Jensen, “50 Years Ago, ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ Shook the Auto World,” The New York Times, Nov. 26, 2015,

[73] “The Love Bug,” Disney Movies, March 13, 1969,

[74] John McCarthy, “Computer Controlled Cars,”; Robert E. Fenton and Karl W. Olson, “The electronic highway,” IEEE Spectrum, July 1969,

[75] “Historical Fatality Trends: Car Crash Deaths and Rates,” op. cit.

[76] Matt Novak, “DARPA Tried to Build Skynet in the 1980s,” Gizmodo, Dec. 18, 2013,

[77] Janosch Delcker, “The man who invented the self-driving car (in 1986),” Politico, July 24, 2018,

[78] Luke Dormehl and Stephen Edelstein, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy a ride through the history of self-driving cars,” Digital Trends, Oct. 28, 2018,

[79] Alex Davies, “An Oral History of the Darpa Grand Challenge, the Grueling Robot Race That Launched the Self-Driving Car,” Wired, Aug. 3, 2017,

[80] “The DARPA Grand Challenge: Ten Years Later,” DARPA, March 13, 2014,

[81] Ibid.; Arjun Kharpal, “Google's Larry Page disguised himself during a driverless car race to hire the founder of his moonshot lab,” CNBC, May 11, 2017,

[82] Mary Slosson, “Google gets first self-driven car license in Nevada,” Reuters, May 8, 2012,

[83] “Full transcript: Self-driving car engineer Chris Urmson on Recode Decode,” recode, Sept. 8, 2017,; Kristen Hall-Geisler, “Bye-bye, Firefly: Waymo retires its autonomous prototype vehicle,” TechCrunch, 2017,

[84] Dormehl and Edelstein, op. cit.; Hall-Geisler, ibid.

[85] Danielle Muoio, “Tesla's Autopilot system is partially to blame for a fatal crash, federal investigators say,” Business Insider, Sept. 12, 2017,

[86] “Man killed in Tesla ‘Autopilot’ crash got numerous warnings: Report,” Reuters, CNBC, June 20, 2017,

[87] Aarian Marshall, “Congress Unites (Gasp) to Spread Self-Driving Cars Across America,” Wired, Sept. 6, 2017,

[88] Andrew J. Hawkins, “Waymo is first to put fully self-driving cars on US roads without a safety driver,” The Verge, Nov. 7, 2017,

[89] “Preliminary Report Highway HWY18FH011,” National Transportation Safety Board, undated,

[90] Andrew J. Hawkins, “Waymo gets the green light to test fully driverless cars in California,” The Verge, Oct. 30, 2018,

[91] Eric Kulisch, “House will try new tactic next year to pass AV bill, Dingell says,” Automotive News, Dec. 21, 2018,

[92] Eric Kulisch, “Hopes fade for Senate action on self-driving bill,” Automotive News, July 8, 2018,

[93] Letter to U.S. Senate from Uber and Waymo, March 16, 2018,

[94] “More Than 75 Groups Ask Senate to Oppose Flawed Driverless Car Bill,” Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Nov. 28, 2018,

[95] “Autonomous Vehicle Pilots Across America,” National League of Cities, 2018,

[96] Chris Anderson, “4 Ohio cities move forward with testing self-driving cars,” Cleveland 19, Nov. 21, 2019,; Jon Fingas, “Ohio's first self-driving shuttle service begins on December 10th,” engadget, Dec. 4, 2018,

[97] Patrick Anderson, “Driverless Buses to Roll Out in Providence, R.I., in 2019,” Providence Journal, Dec. 5, 2018,

[98] Guy Tridgell and Jessie Decker, “‘Autonomous Illinois’ moves Illinois to forefront of connected, automated vehicle testing, research,” Illinois Department of Transportation, Oct. 25, 2018,

[99] Doug Finke, “ABATE rescinds Rauner endorsement over autonomous vehicles,” State Journal-Register, Oct. 29, 2018,

[100] “Reshaping Urban Mobility with Autonomous Vehicles Lessons from the City of Boston,” op. cit.

[101] Kyle Stock, “Self-Driving Cars Can Handle Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Snow,” Bloomberg Businessweek, Sept. 17, 2018,

[102] “What is GPR?” WaveSense, undated,

[103] “What happens when autonomous vehicles can't ‘see’?” Alchemy, undated,

[104] “Mighty AI,” LinkedIn, undated,

[105] Jeremy B. White, “Self-driving cars attacked by angry San Francisco residents,” Independent, March 7, 2018,

[106] Ibid.; Simon Romero, “Wielding Rocks and Knives, Arizonans Attack Self-Driving Cars,” The New York Times, Dec. 31, 2018,

[107] Ryan Randazzo, “A slashed tire, a pointed gun, bullies on the road: Why do Waymo self-driving vans get so much hate?” azcentral, Dec. 11, 2018,

[108] Ryan Randazzo, “Video shows man waving gun at Waymo self-driving van in Chandler,” azcentral, Dec. 14, 2018,

[109] Romero, op. cit.

[110] Conor Dougherty, “Self-Driving Trucks May Be Closer Than They Appear,” The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2017,; “AI Empowered,” TuSimple, undated,

[111] Carmen Reinicke, “Autonomous vehicles won't only kill jobs. They will create them, too,” CNBC, Aug. 11, 2018,

[112] Jeff McMahon, “7 Ideas To Pave The Way For Autonomous Vehicles,” Forbes, April 9, 2018,; Ed Blazina, “Self-driving vehicles working to handle Pittsburgh potholes,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 10, 2018,

[113] Paul Page, “States Wire Up Roads as Cars Get Smarter,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 2, 2017,; James McBride, “The State of U.S. Infrastructure,” Council on Foreign Relations, Jan. 12, 2018,

[114] David H. Freedman, “How Autonomous Vehicles Will Transform Cities and Suburbs by Ending Traffic Jams, Parking Problems and Road Rage,” Newsweek, Dec. 6, 2018,

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About the Author

Stephen Ornes is a freelance science and medical writer

Stephen Ornes is a freelance science and medical writer in Nashville, Tenn., whose articles have appeared in Scientific American, Discover, New Scientist, Science News for Students, Cancer Today, Physics World and other publications. His next book, Math Art: Truth, Beauty, and Equations (Sterling Publishing), is scheduled for release in April.

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Document APA Citation
Ornes, S. (2019, February 1). Self-driving cars. CQ researcher, 29, 1-52. Retrieved from
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