For all of the hype surrounding autonomous vehicles, there are still no fully autonomous vehicles operating in the United States today. Initial testing of fully autonomous vehicles has been met with mixed success, and a vehicle tested by Uber last year resulted in the death of a pedestrian in Arizona. With autonomous vehicles, also known as “self-driving cars,” coming to prominence, it is important to understand how they work and how they may demonstrate a major advancement in vehicle technology – or, depending on your viewpoint, bolster many of the issues already associated with motor vehicles.
How do autonomous vehicles work?
A self-driving vehicle typically relies on a combination of sensors, but this ultimately depends on the company testing them. The Uber vehicle like the one involved in hitting the pedestrian relies on a combination of laser beams and other sensors that take constant measurements of the car’s surroundings to make adjustments accordingly. Other vehicles may also use radar, high-powered cameras, and even sonar to be in constant awareness of their surroundings.
The car is equipped with software that takes the inputs from the sensors and translates them into commands to the vehicle’s various ‘actuators’ – steering, acceleration, and braking, so that the vehicle can make adjustments as needed.
As the technology has progressed, so have the levels of autonomy for vehicles. There are layers of autonomy, from a vehicle with nothing automated to vehicles that are completely capable of self-driving under all circumstances, though the technology is still a ways away from the later being a viable, everyday option. Many production vehicles on the road today already have cruise control, automatic braking, and even corrective steering available as a function, though this does not make them completely ‘self-driving cars’ in the sense that a human does not even need to pay attention when inside the vehicle.
What do autonomous vehicles mean for our roads?
There are a number of equity, environmental, and safety concerns raised by the rise of autonomous vehicles.
In terms of equity, autonomous vehicles could represent a major leap forward for those are disabled and need on-demand transportation. However, they also threaten existing public transportation systems and displace the millions of people who are employed as truck drivers, cab/rideshare drivers, and other transportation employees.
Autonomous vehicles also raise a number of safety concerns. Car accidents remain a leading cause of death in the United States and around the world, and autonomous vehicles, if developed and tested thoroughly for collision avoidance, could prove to make major strides in reducing traffic fatalities. However, hacking of these systems poses a major threat to their safety.
Finally, there are also environmental considerations. Autonomous vehicles could significantly increase the number of miles traveled. Depending on how these vehicles are powered, this could mean either a major increase or reduction in emissions from traffic. Ideally, electric autonomous vehicles that could be shared and are powered by a clean electricity grid could serve to reduce transportation emissions significantly. How such a large change in how we drive will impact the fight toward lower emissions remains to be seen.