Preparing for Autonomous Vehicles

How do we take our hands off the wheel?


An autonomous vehicle (self-driving car) is a vehicle that can drive itself without human guidance. These vehicles are arriving faster than most people have anticipated. How might we prepare for this major advance in transportation? An important concern about adding Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) is the effect of “driverless” on the industries that hire drivers, as well as the drivers themselves. There are also policy questions about Autonomous Vehicles such as, determining fault in the case of an accident (e.g., passenger, manufacturer, designer). However, a related concern is how other drivers will engage with AVs—there is some concern that other drivers might cut off, chase down, or otherwise aggressively engage with AVs.

Lastly, it may be easy to hack an AV, as they are designed to continuously receive information from other cars and sensors on the road through a “WiFi like” transmission system. Preparing for AVs may also mean rethinking the design of our existing roadways and signage. If AVs can monitor the speed and distance of other AVs, that means that cars can potentially travel at far faster speeds and in very close proximity. Will stop lights be necessary in this not-so-distant future?

User experience inside autonomous cars: Can we be more productive?

person texting in car
The experience of riding in an autonomous vehicle (AV) may be very different than driving. Driving may no longer be about keeping your eyes on the road and hands at 10 and 2. Moving around, dancing, even singing karaoke are all possibilities when driverless cars are involved. Several automotive companies have made a pledge to have AVs on the road before 2020.

As one example of how AVs might offer a radically new experience, think about what work might be like while riding in an AV. Many cars are already WiFi-enabled and wired for conference calls. Without needing to focus on the road, a rider could focus on that pressing report that's due. In fact, why meet in an office conference room, if we could sit around a table while cruising down La Jolla’s Scenic Drive?

Future jobs for professional drivers: What gig can they pick up next?

autonomous car
San Diego is already beginning to test out autonomous vehicles under the direction of SANDAG. As autonomous vehicles begin to rise in popularity and use, professions and labor markets that depend on cars will transform. For example, Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing companies may switch over completely and change their platforms to reflect the changes in the use of the roads. Thinking about the thousands of people who work in this gig market, what will they do next? In the past, such technology shifts have been accompanied by job retraining and transition periods that help the labor force adapt—though it is unclear what such professional development might look like as these gig economies evolve. As might other industries related to human driven vehicles, e.g., vehicle insurance, container shipping, and the traffic engineering profession. What kinds of changes need to be made to accommodate the job training or potential spike in unemployment if industries rapidly adopt AVs?

Preparing the city: Are stop signs a relic of the past?

hand on wheel of car
San Diego is one of the 10 cities that has been selected by the Department of Transportation to test introducing autonomous vehicles (AVs) to city streets. Though it’s important to note that AVs not only ride on the streets, they might also talk with the street, the light signals and all other sensors even miles down the road. AVs use onboard sensors to detect potential immediate hazards, but also integrate with other cars and sensors in a communication network that connects them to potential dangers miles ahead.

For passengers, these safety precautions add to a relaxing experience of being chauffeured, but for walkers, bikers and others’ on the road, negotiating traffic with an AV may be a stressful experience. How might an AV signal to a walker or biker that they have been “seen” and accounted for in the navigation routing system, and that it’s actually safe to walk?

Another concern is that computing systems can be hacked. To communicate with other cars and sensors along the drive, AVs access part of the radio frequency spectrum set aside explicitly for cars, and called “Dedicated Short-Range Communication”. AVs can use this frequency to communicate with other sensors within a 1,000 foot range. However, because AVs are open to receive signals it leaves them vulnerable to hacking. Hacking a car is somewhat different than breaking in and stealing the vehicle—hacked cars might be rerouted, used to reroute other vehicles, or hacking might simply be to delete the car’s log files. All frightening possibilities that need design solutions.