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About Autonomous Vehicles

Many road vehicles are capable of operating at least some of the time without human intervention, but humans typically must supervise such vehicles during automated operation and must be able to take over manual control when the situation demands. Recent advances in sensing, artificial intelligence, mechatronics, and related fields are allowing automated vehicles to become truly autonomous—capable of operating entirely on their own, in the same sorts of environments and situations that previously required direct human control. Fully autonomous vehicles could transform society in countless ways, including drastically reducing the cost of transportation of people and goods, eliminating the need for cities to allocate space and infrastructure for parking and many other vehicle-related services, and rapidly displacing tens of millions of workers. Autonomous vehicles could also utterly transform the global vehicle industry, which is one of the largest industries worldwide, creating countless opportunities and challenges for existing and emerging companies and for the people they employ.

But whether, when, and to what extent autonomous vehicles will become available commercially are highly uncertain. Regulators might continue the current trend of accommodating driverless-vehicle developments or might become motivated to slow their progress through imposing more stringent safety requirements, robot taxes, and the like, perhaps in response to public pressure from millions of soon-to-be-displaced vehicle operators and the businesses that depend on them. The overall cost and complexity of the technology necessary to enable many types of fully autonomous vehicles is yet unknown. Trial-and-error developments could have extended timelines, or a combination of hardware, software, and connectivity improvements could enable fully autonomous vehicles more inexpensively and rapidly than anyone anticipated. However, competition from human-operated vehicles may grow much stronger with time, in part because of the human-enhancing effects of many of the same technologies that enable vehicle automation and in part because autonomous vehicles have many restrictions, limitations, and eccentricities in comparison with human-driven vehicles. Nevertheless autonomous vehicles could lower transportation cost to a degree that humans' advantages cease to matter. Many other forces and factors—including variances in demand, resource availability, legal liability, and the actions of municipal governments—could affect the timing, nature, and extent of vehicle automation.

The advent of autonomous vehicles creates many new opportunities for manufacturers, system developers, and service providers. Champions express visions of autonomous passenger vehicles as venues for leisure activities, office work, education, or even health care. Concepts exist for private autonomous vehicles with fold-flat seating that could allow occupants to sleep comfortably while en route to their destination and for autonomous delivery trucks that function as mobile package-sorting facilities or mother ships for fleets of delivery drones or sidewalk robots. To realize such visions, developers might need to create new solutions that help enhance passenger safety and comfort, that allow vehicle interiors to transform physically and digitally to meet different needs, and that embed sophisticated sensing systems within vehicles. In some cases, the advances in sensing and artificial intelligence that have enabled today's autonomous-vehicle guidance systems can also help enable new types of in-vehicle services. In other cases, advances in materials science, user-interface design, energy-storage, biosensing, robotics, and other technologies might be necessary to realize new opportunities that autonomous vehicles create. And such advances would have to occur in a manner that achieves regulatory approval, resonates with end users, and is viable competitively. All the while, the nature of vehicles themselves will change as they incorporate more automation technologies, with uncertain and possibly enormous impacts on industry and society.