Explainer Weekly Insight

Insight Explainer: Autonomous vehicles

Any time I watch a movie or read a book set in the early 20th century, I wonder what it must have felt like to watch the rise of the automobile age. I imagine the awe that normal people must have felt to see chemically-powered machines change the landscape and infrastructure in America. 

For better or worse, the automobile changed how we organize ourselves as people.  It allowed for the suburban ideal to flourish and began the erosion of the urban/rural dichotomy. University of Houston Professor Martin Melosi has a very readable overview of how cars have affected American life. 

We now sit at the juncture of another evolutionary turn.  Whether it is flying vehicles or autonomous ones, we sense the next shift coming. It is exciting, nerve-wracking and overwhelming all at the same time.

Sociologists tell us that these shifts roll forward in five-stage cycles laid out by sociologist Everett Rogers: innovation, early adoption, early majority, and late majority and lagging.  Plotted on a bell curve, the percentage of the population falling within each stage breaks down as follows:

Source: Wikipedia

For example, with the development of smartphones, the innovation phase was from the 1990s through the early 2000s.  The Early Adopter phase began sometime in the early 2000s as Handspring’s Palm Treo and other devices became available.  The first iPhone was available in 2007 which led into the Early Majority phase in the late 00’s. According to latest survey research by Pew, we shifted into the Late Majority phase somewhere around 2015 and are now on the slope towards full adoption.

How Autonomous Vehicles Work

The web is full of technical information about how autonomous cars work.  An Israeli angel investing company has one of the simplest infographics describing how the technology works.  The driving technology combination combines a Light Detection and Ranging system (LIDAR), video cameras and GPS, all controlled by a sophisticated central computer programmed to understand the rules of the road.

Source: iAngels.co

Within the realm of the innovation adoption cycle and specific to autonomous cars, there are five levels of development leading to full-autonomous cars: Driver Assistance, Partial Automation, Conditional Automation, High Automation, and Full Automation. Different entities frame these levels a little differently. Here is another chart from iAngel that demonstrates the levels:

Source: iAngel.co via 2024ad.com

The Car Connection nicely describes what these different levels really mean:

Level 1 means the car can intervene for safety, as many cars now do with forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking systems. The car senses an obstacle, and at lower speeds, can stop before a crash.

At Level 2, the vehicle can control speed and steering for several seconds before it calls for the driver to take the controls. Vehicles such as the Volvo XC90 and Mercedes E-Class are capable of this. At Level 3 the car can be in total control, but will require the driver to stay at attention and to take over in case of an emergency. For safety reasons, most automakers expect to skip this level.

At Level 4, the vehicle will be able to control itself, and will stop completely if its systems fail or cannot perform adequately on the road. Finally, at Level 5, the driver is factored out entirely; the car is built to drive itself under all conditions, and need not have a steering wheel or brake pedal.

Experts disagree on when widespread implementation will begin, but most agree that the technology will be ready for the next phase before the regulatory and governance structures are determined.

 Policy Challenges

The policy waters are already choppy, even before widespread availability and use of autonomous vehicles.  According to a 2016 Brookings report citing an industry expert, 23 states have introduced 53 pieces of legislation that affect autonomous cars. This lack of standardization has created a hodgepodge of laws and sets forth the potential challenges for the wider spread adoption of autonomous vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued a proposed policy that is currently receiving public comment. The draft policy is structured to provide guidance to manufacturers, guidance for state policymakers and guidance for federal regulation.  USDOT has a one-pager than outlines the different responsibilities between the federal and state government. 

Division of Federal and State Responsibilities

Federal responsibilities:
  • Setting safety standards for new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment;
  • Enforcing compliance with the safety standards;
  • Investigating and managing the recall and remedy of non-compliances and safety-related motor vehicle defects on a nationwide basis;
  • Communicating with and educating the public about motor vehicle safety issues; and
  • When necessary, issuing guidance to achieve national safety goals.
State responsibilities:
  • Licensing (human) drivers and registering motor vehicles in their jurisdictions;
  • Enacting and enforcing traffic laws and regulations;
  • Conducting safety inspections, when States choose to do so; and
  • Regulating motor vehicle insurance and liability.

The last state responsibility on the list is to oversee insurance.  The application of insurance guidelines, it turns out, could be a sticking point for the future of autonomous vehicles. The RAND Corporation has a detailed description of the insurance challenges. The short version is that autonomous vehicles may shift the insurance burdens from the drivers/operators to the manufacturers. In theory, that is not an insurmountable problem. In practice, it involves rewiring how we think about liability and how insurance companies calculate risk.

Implications and Opportunities

There are endless implications of the shift towards autonomous vehicles, but there are four that come up regularly:

  • There are a lot of unknowns. There may not end up being a single-type of autonomous vehicle, or at least not for some time. Companies are pursuing different approaches to scaling the technology and focused on different goals within the levels of autonomy. Furthermore, as the RAND Corporation’s Nidhi Kalra noted in her recent testimony to Congress, “there is currently no proven, practical way to determine autonomous vehicle safety prior to widespread use.”
  • Autonomous vehicles pose new challenges and risks not currently experienced by the automotive industry. Because autonomous vehicles rely on complex computers and geo-positioning, they are susceptible to the same risks that other computer networks are susceptible to: privacy and cybersecurity are two of the biggest.  Additionally, early internal combustion engines were relatively simple machines and could be repaired easily. Cars have evolved to be more complex and involve more computer-based operating components.  Autonomous vehicles have all of the complexities of modern automobiles plus a new array of machinations for mission-critical components like lasers and sensors that can need adjustment or replacement.
  • Autonomous vehicles create a relatively new challenge related to road infrastructure. As any car commuter can attest, the road standards between states can vary but generally speaking, those variations are minor and have minimal impact on the driving experience. Autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, will require standardized and well-maintained infrastructure so that vehicles can, for example, determine where one lane begins and another begins.
  • There are significant opportunities for cities and states that are willing to recruit and invest in early adoption. Particularly, in large metro environments like Atlanta and Los Angeles where mass transit options are not deeply rooted, cities can work on establish corridors built to attract and support autonomous vehicles that can ease congestion and provide enhanced mobility for the mobility impaired. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority has been named by USDOT to be a test ground for driverless cars.  


Our preceding technology innovations have left us with easy-to-use pathways to exchange information about the next wave of technologies. The research issue with autonomous vehicles is less about knowledge and more about synthesis.  Below are four sources that we recommend for anyone looking dig deep on the issue.


AHH headshot-2016

Andrew Holton is a board member and contributor to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

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