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Policy to Pave the Way for Autonomous Vehicles

cars on road in sunset

Science fiction has often given us a grand vision of autonomous vehicles moving swiftly through the sky or on the roads, with voice navigation or even an artificial intelligence that helps you fight crime. For now, this future is the least likely manifestation of autonomous vehicles. What’s more likely in our generation is the possibility of having goods delivered by a self-driving vehicle, taking an autonomous shuttle, or hopping in a ride sharing service with no driver. Whether it’s for ride-sharing, personal or public transportation, commercial transportation, or more, we’re nearing a future employing autonomous vehicles (AVs) – or more accurately, vehicles containing automated systems. There’s a global race to achieve this goal and many countries have begun to create their own approaches to AV regulation. The U.S. is taking a lighter touch approach with principles for the safe development and integration of automated vehicles, alongside state-specific AV regulation; the EU has a strategy for AV mobility guidelines and plans to issue new AV-specific safety standards alongside EU member state AV regimes; and China has heartily encouraged the development and testing of AVs. Autonomous vehicles are advancing at a steady pace and policymakers are seeking to respond to potential concerns with this new technology without overly burdening it with regulations and hampering the promise it provides. 

Whether something is automated is not a binary condition. There is a spectrum of functions that may be automated, and the benefits and risks of automation vary across that spectrum. In an effort to characterize this, the Society of Automotive Engineers created a taxonomy of six levels of automation (0-5), each denoting degrees of driver and autonomous operation from no automation to full automation. Many companies currently engaged in creating autonomous vehicles range between the second to fourth levels. Tesla’s autopilot system is generally considered to rank at a Level 2. Waymo’s autonomous vehicles, whose fifth-generation self-driving system can ‘see’ a stop sign 500 meters away, rest at a Level 4. And Nuro’s R2, self described as the next generation of local commerce, sits at a Level 4 as well. To give context to Waymo’s and Nuro’s Level 4, that means at the most advanced level today, autonomous vehicles can perform under specific roadway, weather, speed, and other conditions without a human driver but will not operate unless all conditions are met. These types of Level 4 autonomous vehicles are already on the road (some without anyone behind the wheel) and innovation is driving them further forward. 

Some autonomous vehicle development efforts are geared towards private transportation, such as taxis or ride-sharing and delivery services. Others, such as the autonomous shuttle services found in a Danish suburb and New York City (Optimus Ride is in multiple other areas as well) are steps taken by AV firms to support the public transportation infrastructure. AVs offer increased safety and efficiency in transporting individuals, increased productivity of their passengers, and reduced emissions. However, in order to fulfill these promises, AV firms must be allowed to test their products. Among other efforts, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has granted certain AV firms permits to transport passengers in California. Programs like these are essential to the growth of autonomous vehicles here in the U.S. 

As AV technology continues to develop, competition in the AV sector is only getting stronger. Many firms are investing heavily in this technology and creating new business opportunities centered around autonomous vehicles. GM is spending $20 billion through 2025 on electric and autonomous vehicles. The UK startup Five AI raised $41 million with plans to sell self-driving software to test and measure the accuracy of AV driving systems instead of the common paradigm of building one’s own fleet of autonomous vehicles. Another startup called Nuro, who raised $940 million, is creating AVs which serve as delivery services for restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses. Volkswagen and Ford have both invested heavily in Argo AI — with Volkswagen providing several billion in funding and assets to the company — a technology firm that is developing a fully integrated self-driving system. And Waymo, who raised $2.25 billion in its first round of external investment, recently released a short video depicting some of Waymo’s pursuits. 

While fully autonomous vehicles haven’t yet reached the public at large and Level 4 operations are in limited geographical regions today, the future of AV technology could revolutionize transportation, mobility, and public and private transportation infrastructure, which would then have wide reaching effects in sectors which rely on this infrastructure. In addition to businesses’ and states’ innovative efforts, countries like China are taking action to support large-scale AV operation. We’re nearing the tipping point, where autonomous vehicles will enter into many aspects of business and society. 

We haven’t fully anticipated, and simply cannot anticipate, all the potential applications of a new general purpose technology such as autonomous vehicles. At the same time, we must keep our expectations in check while looking to secure the future for autonomous vehicles. A recent House Energy and Commerce hearing outlined the complicated nature of this technology, both the safety concerns presented by the imperfect implementation of autonomous vehicles and the benefits implementation could have in many sectors. It’s essential that policymaking focuses on ensuring that any AV regulation balances potential concerns with the potential positive impact this technology can have across society. This will allow us to realize a future with autonomous vehicles in the quickest, safest way possible.


New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.