What are Autonomous Vehicles?

By now, all of us have probably heard people talk about autonomous vehicles and how they are going to completely remove any and all aspects of driving from our day-to-day lives. Some people believe that autonomous vehicles are going to take the country by storm and that non self-driving cars should be banned, and others believe that autonomous vehicles as an entire concept is doomed to fail. Regardless of which side of the fence you might sit on, it’s fairly safe to say that self-driving cars are coming whether we like it or not. 

For those of you who have maybe heard of autonomous vehicles but maybe aren’t too sure on what the details are around them, let me break it down for you real quick. While an autonomous vehicle is more or less as the name suggests, a car that is capable of driving itself, there are different levels of autonomy that we need to take into consideration. Here’s a diagram to help you understand what each of these levels represents.

Infographic showing the various levels of driving autonomy

As you might be able to deduce, most brand-new cars have some level of driving autonomy already implemented. While nearly all new vehicles today have features classified as L1 autonomy such as lane-keep assist, a large number of cars actually fall under L2. This is thanks to handy systems such as adaptive cruise control, lane-centering, and some restricted hands-free steering systems. Some auto manufacturers are closer to achieving L3 autonomy than others, but there has yet to be a car with L3 automation, not even Tesla.

So, how does this impact our society? Well, it certainly doesn’t have a huge impact quite yet while we’re only at L2 automation, but we can still try to imagine what the future impacts will be. Odds are L5 will be here faster than we realize, so let’s have some fun and speculate how things like transportation, the job market, and society will look like in say, the year 2040 when L5 autonomous vehicles are here and prevalent in our daily lives.

Impact on Transportation

One of the first things that we think about when we think about a world full of autonomous vehicles is their impact on transportation. How will your commute to and from work look? Will we finally see the day where there are no longer people driving 15 mph under the speed limit in the left lane? Will the amount of total cars on the road actually decrease thanks to the driverless ridesharing services? I think that it’s safe to say that having less clueless drivers on the road is something that we all hope for.

While we obviously don’t have any L5 autonomous vehicle examples to pull from, we can extrapolate out and make some predictions on what transportation will look like based on the impact that has already been observed from the introduction of L3 autonomy in many vehicles. Mass adoption of systems like adaptive cruise control and lane-centering assistance can already make a fairly significant impact on the overall safety and efficiency of transportation. With adaptive cruise control, you effectively have a train of cars all moving together at the same speed, with very little deviation. Theoretically, this would let traffic flow quite a bit more smoothly, as you would reduce the amount of “phantom traffic jams” since adaptive cruise control would handle the minute speed adjustments faster than we can react as humans. Check out this article from Science ABC to read more on phantom traffic jams: https://www.scienceabc.com/eyeopeners/what-are-phantom-traffic-jams.html

This next point is probably more just speculation and high hopes from my end, but if autonomous vehicles result in an overall decrease in cars on the road, I would welcome them with open arms. Using the same logic as people who claim people will bike to work if they just live close enough, it would be really convenient if people opted more often for taking advantage of ridesharing services with fleets of autonomous vehicles to get around instead of driving themselves. If you aren’t going to be driving your autonomous vehicle anyways, what’s the point in owning it in the first place? Just take a self-driving Uber or something, right? But there are probably a whole lot of other implications that come along with something like this happening and I don’t want to even start getting into them. I just want to be able to drive my own cars and not have to worry about having tons and tons of other cars around me all the time.

One potential upside to a mass adoption of autonomous vehicles is (hopefully) an overall reduction in highway and street infrastructure. If one day we live in a world where traffic moves twice or more efficiently than it currently does, it would be viable to say that we no longer have as much of a need for these ultrawide mega-highways we have everywhere, or even wide streets with 3 or 4 lanes on each side. If properly taken advantage of, a situation like this could do wonders for cities and their overall beauty, and might hopefully allow for some character to re-enter a lot of cities and towns that are plagued by the necessity for wide roads.

Impact on the Job Market

While it does sound nice to effectively give anybody who doesn’t want to drive an autonomous car to get them around wherever they need to go, there is also the undeniable reality that a mass adoption of self-driving cars would have a drastic impact on the job market. At the end of the day, it’s the same reasoning that is used when we talk about the introduction of any other type of automation. On one hand, you can pretty easily expect to see cuts in jobs that revolve around transporting in general: trucking, taxi driving, ridesharing, chauffeurs, etc. This in itself is a problem for obvious reasons, people need jobs.

However, it’s important that we look beyond that immediate effect and understand what the implications are. The introduction of automation in general creates its own all-new job market in the form of engineers and technicians. After all, someone needs to be able to design these self-driving cars and they also need people who understand how to work on them. What’s interesting to think about is that the automotive industry as a whole will likely transform into something that more closely resembles the tech industry than it does the traditional automotive industry. We can already get an early glimpse of what this looks like by looking at how a company like Tesla is run, where there is more focus on the technology within the car compared to the physical car. My only hope is that as auto manufacturers move in this direction, they learn from the pitfalls of Tesla and continue to prioritize the things that they already do well.

Impact on Society

What sort of impact can we see on society as a whole from an introduction and adoption of self-driving cars? For one, overall car ownership will probably decrease in favor of ridesharing services. Ideally, the costs of these services would decrease due to not having to pay for a person to drive, and this would make ridesharing more accessible for people. Car ownership obviously won’t disappear, and it will likely not decrease too much anyways, since the dependence on having a ride even available in your area will still be a very big logistical problem that would need to be addressed. Especially in rural areas, people will still probably use their own cars to get themselves wherever they need to go. 

Having a net reduction in human drivers on the road will (hopefully) lead to lower insurance costs as well, at least if we run with the idea that more autonomous vehicles will sharply reduce the amount of traffic accidents. In a perfect world, having self-driving cars that communicate with each other and operate with lightning precision would mean we could completely eliminate traffic accidents, but we all know that this won’t happen, at least not anytime soon. Firstly, still having cars on the road being actively driven by people, even at a lesser amount, will still create risk. Also, system failures or bugs can and most likely will be the cause of many accidents in the future as well. Honorable mention for cyber crime, too. It might not be prevalent on a day-to-day basis, but I can all but guarantee that in the future, we’ll have some sort of major cyber crime incident be the root cause of a massive traffic event.

Closing Thoughts

Given where we are already at in terms of automotive technology, it’s undeniable that fully autonomous vehicles are going to be part of our future in one way or another. The day in which any sort of manually driven car is totally banned from the roads is likely a long way away, but self-driving cars will be prevalent on our roads sooner than we may think. With the adoption of self-driving cars, though, it is likely that we will start to see transportation get safer and more efficient through the removal of distracted or otherwise clueless drivers from behind the wheel. Their advent will most definitely create entire new job markets, but at the same time all but eliminate other jobs in transportation. A mass adoption of autonomous vehicles will have a downstream impact of reducing operating costs for transportation in industries like ridesharing, which will help in making transportation more accessible for a lot of people. It should go without saying, however, that this is something that NEEDS careful planning behind every decision. As exciting or as dreadful a world filled with self-driving cars might sound, there are a lot of potential benefits, but also a whole host of potential negative consequences that we could be facing as we get closer and closer to this era.