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10 Things to Know About Autonomous Vehicles

Once a distant dream of science-fiction, self-driving or autonomous vehicles are quickly becoming a reality. These vehicles carry great promise for changing the way that we move and interact, but also introduce new questions of safety, ethics, and liability. How should policymakers regulate this rapidly growing industry to balance innovation and caution?

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  1. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have the potential to revolutionize transportation. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to reduce the number of crashes on our roads, increase free time currently spent driving, and to make transportation more accessible to those who cannot drive themselves. They promise to eliminate the risks of distraction, poor reaction times, and impairment that human drivers face.

  2. Automation of vehicles is happening today. Though few cars on the road today are fully autonomous, many new mainstream vehicles come equipped with advanced features helping drivers to adjust speed and change lanes automatically. The gradual shift towards automation in vehicles will likely become more widespread as technology develops.

  3. Proponents of AVs argue they will bring economic and environmental benefits for communities. With the ability to drive more safely, efficiently, and communicate with each other, autonomous vehicles may allow for reduced carbon emissions, less congestion, and new revenue streams for public transportation. Greater access could also allow for new economic opportunities for communities.

  4. The industry faces questions and concerns about safety. Though they promise to be safer than human drivers, accidents still do occur involving AVs. Particularly during the development of this emerging technology, accidents may occur and cause public unease about their safety. See this article on the first fatal accident caused by an AV for more info.

  5. The public is wary of the widespread adoption and safety of AVs. A wide variety of surveys have found mixed or negative public reception to self-driving vehicles. In a 2019 poll, 64% of respondents said they would not buy a self-driving car and 67% said AVs should be held to higher safety standards than traditional ones.

  6. Considerations about who evaluates vehicle safety are critical and remain unresolved. Today, the industry is largely regulated by an asymmetric patchwork of rules that vary widely from state-to-state. Though the federal government’s NHTSA guidelines provide recommendations for AV development, compliance remains low due to its voluntary nature. Formal regulation largely falls to the state level and different states have moved with differing speed and caution for regulation.

  7. BPC has called for regulations and protections for autonomous vehicles. In 2018, BPC released a report highlighting the potential upsides of self-driving technologies while noting the potential for delayed or halted development if legislation does not strike an effective balance between regulation and protection. Read more about the regulatory barriers challenges EVs face here.

  8. AVs introduce new issues of liability. With the possibilities of humans no longer having direct control of their vehicles, who is at fault when an accident occurs? Automakers, insurers, and individuals all must reevaluate the dynamics of liability which are standard today.

  9. The trolley problem is an often-posed question for the autonomous vehicle industry, representing the complexity of decision-making for self-driving vehicles. AI systems can be programmed to react to certain scenarios, but some might come with a choice, such as whether to sacrifice the car or driver to avoid hitting a pedestrian. Ethically complex situations like these can weigh on decisions by developers, manufacturers, and policymakers.

  10. The data from AVs will be highly valuable. Generating massive amounts of information about users’ location and usage patterns, AVs offer many new possibilities for the companies owning and operating these vehicles. Questions of who can access or sell such personal data must be addressed as autonomous technologies expand.

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