In a 2009 TED Talk, Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Google Vice President Sebastian Thrun set off a firestorm of interest over automated vehicle technology in his announcement that Google was pursuing a world where human beings no longer drive cars. Since then, Google has been joined by numerous technology startups as well as traditional automakers in a joint quest to replace human beings in the driver seat with sensor arrays and computers.
Improving safety has been a top stated priority and is especially significant given the long-recognized fact that more than 90 percent of automobile crashes involve driver error or misbehavior. A recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated that vehicle automation systems could potentially prevent just 34 percent of crashes. However, this study was heavily criticized for inaccurately assuming riders of automated vehicles would somehow be able to direct the vehicles to illegally speed and make illegal maneuvers. In reality, automated vehicle developers are designing their systems to obey traffic laws and potentially only violate them in order to prevent crashes—and where riders play no role in this decision-making. Properly recalculated using standard automated vehicle engineering assumptions, the estimate for potentially preventable crashes rises to 73 percent.
The technology also offers great promise for traditionally mobility-disadvantaged groups who—either by disability or lack of income—are unable to drive their own vehicles and then suffer the consequences of reduced access to jobs, medicine, and leisure that poor substitutes such as mass transit cannot come close to matching.
Automated vehicles also have the potential to significantly reduce traffic congestion. Brookings Institution economist Clifford Winston and lawyer Quentin Karpilow modeled the economic impacts of congestion reduction in a scenario of widespread automated vehicle adoption in their recent book, Autonomous Vehicles: The Road to Economic Growth?
They estimate that a large reduction in travel delays from automated vehicles could raise the annual economic growth rate of the U.S. by at least one percentage point. While this might seem small, a conservative estimate would still translate to hundreds of billions of dollars in additional annual growth to the economy.
We are still years away from the widescale deployment of self-driving taxis and delivery vehicles that have captured the popular imagination, and current projections are highly speculative. Despite recent bipartisan efforts, comprehensive federal policy has yet to be enacted. In this environment, a number of states have begun to occupy the policy vacuum created by federal inaction, which in turn has increased risks posed by a growing patchwork of state policy.
This policy brief aims to provide guidance to federal policymakers as they work to develop a pro-innovation national framework for automated vehicles.
The brief begins with definitions of key automated vehicle terms and concepts, continues with a survey of federal automated vehicle policy development activities, and concludes with recommendations for federal policymakers to promote automated vehicle innovation while protecting the public interest.