Driverless Cars Overview

Driverless cars, also referred to as autonomous vehicles, are capable of sensing their environment and navigating roads without human input. They rely on technologies like GPS, LIDAR, and radar to read their surroundings and make intelligent decisions about the car’s direction and speed. Depending on when and how the vehicles are introduced and adopted, the implications on society are potentially massive.

Some examples of the impacts driverless cars may have include the following:

Potential Positive Impacts

  • Safety improvements: The elimination of human driving error will reduce traffic collisions, drunk driving accidents, and distracted drivers.
  • Decreased travel time: Decreased headways between vehicles will increase the capacity of existing roadways.
  • Improved use of infrastructure and vehicles: Virtualized signage and pavement markings will reduce the need for physical infrastructure. Changes in vehicle use will lead to less parking space requirements.
  • Reduction in private car ownership: Preliminary analysis indicates that a single shared autonomous vehicle could replace between nine and thirteen privately-owned or household-owned vehicles, without compromising current travel patterns. (, August 4, 2014)
  • Decreased carbon emissions: Driverless vehicles will likely all be electric or some other zero emissions technology
  • Improved mobility: Senior citizens and disabled people will be able to travel more easily

Potential Negative/Challenging Impacts

  • Insurance policy disruption: Insurance companies will potentially need to charge significantly higher rates for non-autonomous cars and insurance policies will need to be developed for autonomous car accidents.
  • Increased urban sprawl: With hands-free commuting, people will be willing to live farther from their jobs since they could focus on other activities (e.g., work) while commuting.
  • Privacy/data sharing concerns: Large amounts of data will be generated and, likely, require significant protections and regulation.
  • Security risks: “Smart cars” will likely be more vulnerable to cyber attacks
  • Ethical decisions: “Robots” will likely need to make decisions with harmful impacts
  • Job loss: Truck drivers, parking lot attendants, and taxi drivers are amongst the many job types that will be significantly reduced or eliminated.

Currently, universities, auto makers, and technology companies are among the many institutions investing time and resources into autonomous vehicle research. Google has made a considerable, publicized effort in piloting autonomous vehicles; their cars have logged over 700,000 miles of testing (including city street driving) and they have stated their level of development is at the “dog-food stage: not quite fit for human consumption.”

As stated in a recent Forbes article, most of the automakers are “pursuing incremental, sometimes-autonomous vehicle strategies. This makes eminent sense in the short term, both from a technical and business standpoint. From a business standpoint, automakers’ incremental approach enables rich pipelines of premium technology and safety-oriented car features that do not depend on breakthroughs in technology, regulation or liability. It allows automakers to stay firmly focused on their current competitors—each other. And, it allows them to incorporate new features into their vehicles without any disruption to business as usual.”