SubscribeArrow

Transportation is beginning a historic shift as drivers start to take a back seat to computers.

This week, Axios' AV correspondent Joann Muller and Managing Editor Alison Snyder look at where autonomous vehicles are today, and what is needed in law, ethics and regulation on the road to fully driverless cars.

Tweet us your questions about autonomous vehicles with the hashtag #AskAxios and Joann will answer them on Twitter today at 1pm ET. And sign up for Joann's autonomous vehicles newsletter.

1 big thing: The great auto disruption

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Few changes in modern life will hit in more radical ways than how we get around.

Already, people are abandoning cars for ride-hailing and tooling around on electric scooters. Computer-assisted driving is giving way to prototype autonomous vehicles that share the road in some cities with pedestrians, bicyclists and traditional vehicles.

  • The big picture: The vision is that driverless cars will chauffeur you anywhere while you relax, work or socialize.
  • The reality is that while 99% of routine driving skills have been relatively easy for robots to achieve, the last 1% haven't — and those are crucial for safety and consumer trust.

Let’s break down the raw myths and realities of what’s here and what's coming:

The allure of autonomous vehicles is that they're expected to cost less per mile, result in fewer traffic deaths and provide greater freedom to the elderly and disabled.

When will they arrive? In 10, 20, 50 years — experts debate the timing.

Execs are trying to lower expectations:

  • After promising that a Tesla would drive itself across the country by the end of 2017, the company recently removed “full self-driving mode” from its pre-order options, with CEO Elon Musk admitting it confused consumers to offer a feature that wasn't ready yet.
  • Aurora Innovation, led by former execs from Google, Tesla and Uber, urged the industry to tone down its bullishness and “be more truthful about our capabilities,” reports the Washington Post.
  • Even the CEO of Waymo, which is preparing to launch the nation's first commercial robo-taxi service in sections of Phoenix by year-end, says privately owned self-driving cars will take “longer than you think."
"Technologically speaking, there doesn't appear to be a showstopper out there. This is all about learning cycles now.”
— Larry Burns, author of "Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car — and How It Will Shape Our World"

What's holding back the industry: The technology requires more intensive testing and development to be able to predict how other cars will behave — and surpass humans at driving. Safety regulations need to catch up with technological innovation. And legal questions need answering, such as who is to blame if an AV causes an accident?

" We understand if we're going to deploy hundreds or thousands of automated vehicles, it has to work in every case."
— Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles

None of this has changed the minds of investors. They are pouring in cash, and company valuations are getting frothier.

"The $4 trillion disruption:" That's how Burns, a former GM engineer and now Waymo advisor, describes what's happening. Here is how he crunches the numbers:

  • Americans travel more than 3 trillion miles a year.
  • The total cost of owning and operating a car is about $1.50 a mile.
  • Even with the added cost of AV technology, a driverless car costs only about 20 cents a mile.
  • So a driver could save $5,625 a year using a shared driverless electric car instead of a privately owned vehicle.

The economic impact is likely to be large, but not immediate. Autonomous vehicles could add $800 billion to the U.S. economy by 2050 and create jobs that may, over time, replace those lost by truck drivers, according to Securing America's Future Energy.

Where it stands: Active safety technology in today's cars already cut sideswipe crashes and injuries by double-digit rates, and rear-end crashes have gone down 39% with automatic braking systems.

Unfortunately, those safety benefits are offset by a rise in distracted driving, which is why the quest toward fully autonomous cars continues.

2. Autonomous tech explained
Expand chart
Graphic: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

With assisted driving technologies growing more advanced by the day, SAE International created industry standards that rank the intelligence level and autonomous capabilities of vehicles on a scale of 0 to 5. The graphic above breaks down the differences.

Why it matters: With names like AutoPilot, many assisted driving systems erroneously leave consumers believing their cars can drive themselves. SAE’s standards explain autonomous technology's progression from basic driver assistance technologies all the way to full autonomy. Today's available technologies are mostly at levels 1 and 2.

3. In fear of AVs

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

As autonomous vehicles get closer, people seem to be getting more nervous about them, according to a new Axios/Survey Monkey poll, which found fears creeping up for both passengers and pedestrians.

Why it matters: For AVs to take hold, they'll have to gain the public's trust.

People might be less fearful if they had more exposure to self-driving cars and better information, May Mobility's Alisyn Malek recently wrote for Axios.

4. In the states, a patchwork of AV rules

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Drive.ai — a Silicon Valley startup developing an on-demand autonomous shuttle service — has deployed its first vans in Texas, attracted by the state’s approach to AVs.

Without a national regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles, states have become laboratories not just for the technology itself but also for the rules emerging to shape it, report Axios' Kaveh Waddell and Kia Kokalitcheva.

The big picture: Federal legislation that would create national parameters for testing and deploying AVs passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, leaving states to create their own rules for now.

  • Automakers worry that without federal standards they'll have to deal with a patchwork of state laws that would hamper a broader rollout of the technology.
  • Consumer safety advocates worry drivers will be at risk without national safety policies.

Currently, 29 states have passed some kind of regulation for self-driving cars.

As companies get closer to deploying self-driving cars for public use, state rules around consumer transportation will be even more important.

Yes, but: Some experts argue that self-driving safety regulation should really be done at the federal level.

  • “You should be able to buy a car in California and drive it to New York,” says Greg Rogers of Securing America’s Future Energy, arguing that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is best equipped to do this.

Go deeper: Read the entire story.

5. China races for AV supremacy

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

As part of the Made in China 2025 strategic initiative, Beijing wants supremacy in electric cars and autonomous vehicles, Mike Dunne, CEO of ZoZo Go, writes for Axios Expert Voices.

The big picture: Waymo and other U.S. firms like Cruise and Zoox are far ahead in developing the technologies. But China could become the autonomous leader by 2025 because regulators there can pave the way for mass adoption of self-driving cars more quickly than rival countries like the U.S.

What's happening: Baidu is leading China's autonomous efforts, but when it comes to the tech, the company is 3-4 years behind Waymo. To catch up, Baidu launched an open-source development program called Apollo that executives say will become the “Android” of autonomous vehicles.

  • Apollo has already attracted more than 100 partners, including blue chippers like Microsoft, Nvidia, Intel, Mercedes-Benz and NXP.
  • The Chinese government's friendly regulatory approach to AI enables the collection of troves of data that are crucial inputs into algorithms at the heart of autonomous technology. (The approach also may allow for greater surveillance in the country.)

China is building a brand new city near Beijing called Xiongan that will feature high-tech infrastructure that allows autonomous cars to “talk to” their surroundings and other vehicles. Xiongan could be China’s blueprint for other key cities.

What to watch: Baidu and other Chinese AV startups rely heavily on advanced R&D centers in Silicon Valley, where they employ hundreds of software engineers.

  • With new U.S. rules, administered by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, Chinese companies will likely face restrictions on investments in U.S.-based autonomous tech startups.
  • And top Silicon Valley software talent might feel some reluctance to join Chinese companies.
6. Billions of dollars pour in

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Global investors are pumping money into autonomous driving-related companies, according to data from CB Insights. In the first three quarters of 2018, they have committed $4.2 billion, compared to $3 billion in 2017 and $167 million in 2014.

The bottom line: The promise of autonomous driving has led investors — and automakers — to open their checkbooks wide to ensure they’re part of the future of transportation, writes Kia.

And that’s not counting all the funds automakers are investing into developing their own new tech. A Brookings Institution report last year estimates that from August 2014 to June 2017, a total of nearly $80 billion was invested in the area by the auto industry and venture capitalists.

What's next: "Venture investors have begun to target early-stage startups working on specific AV use cases, such as managing a logistics AV fleet or enabling last-mile deliveries, rather than the technology underpinning autonomous mobility," Synapse Partners founder Evangelos Simoudis writes for Axios.

Go deeper: Read Kia's full story

7. A privacy problem

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In its first appraisal of automated driving systems, Consumer Reports rated GM's Cadillac Super Cruise better than Tesla, Nissan and Volvo. Why? Because it’s the only one with a camera that monitors driver attentiveness, Joann reports.

The big picture: There will be more of these driver monitoring systems in semi-automated cars because drivers still have to stay engaged. Their arrival will lead to a big debate about how much monitoring consumers will tolerate in the name of safety. Nose-pickers and car singers, take note.

As cameras proliferate in the name of safety, there's a real chance they can be misused to invade privacy, says Navigant Research senior analyst Sam Abuelsamid.

  • Automakers are already collecting information from your car today, but mostly for vehicle analytics. Their policies are explicit: your car's data belongs to you.
  • New efforts to personalize your vehicle experience, like GM's in-dash Marketplace, require you to opt in so they can share your information with retailers.
  • That privacy protection might not apply when you are riding in a robo-taxi run by a fleet company.
"When you give up ownership of the vehicle, you also give up ownership of your data."
— Sam Abuelsamid, Navigant Research

There’s also the risk that connected vehicles will be hacked by nefarious outsiders, which is why cybersecurity threats need to be addressed now, the Center for Auto Safety's Jason Levine recently wrote for Axios.

8. What you'll be watching

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The media and advertising industries are anxiously awaiting driverless cars, writes Axios' Sara Fischer.

The big picture: With a finite amount of time in a day, the media industry is doing whatever it can to capture and monetize your attention. Driverless cars are supposed to free up hours for people who were previously spending their time behind the wheel.

Between the lines: Driverless cars will dramatically change the way some industries think about marketing and serving content.

  • Billboards and terrestrial radio, for example, will need to use more dynamic, location-targeted ads to reach less-distracted passengers.
  • The video industry also sees opportunity to use 5G connectivity to reshape how people consume TV and movies in cars. But who will control the content being accessed in some cases is still unclear.

For the $190 billion U.S. advertising industry, privacy around data-targeted ads remains a big concern.

"[P]eople should not ignore how the public will accept the privacy implications of these emerging data-driven technologies and ads."
— Dan Jaffe, EVP Policy, Association of National Advertisers

What's next: Right now, drivers own their own data. But because cars will have different levels of driver participation, there's no consensus around the future of data ownership.

  • In some cases, the car company could own the data. In the shared economy (think Uber or Lyft), the ride-sharing service could own it. If stricter privacy laws are enacted in the U.S., the consumer could own it.

The bottom line: Whoever owns the data will ultimately decide who controls the content and ads — or at least who gets the revenue.

Go deeper: Read Sara's full story

9. Can a driverless car be sued?

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The advancement of AI-fueled technologies like robotics and self-driving cars is creating a confusing legal landscape that leaves manufacturers, programmers, and even robots themselves open to liability, Kaveh reports.

Why it matters: As autonomous vehicles take to the road and get into collisions, the question is who — or what — is liable when a harmful mistake occurs.

  • It comes down to whether AI is treated as a product, service, or human decision-maker.
  • The car company, a subcontractor who wrote the software or even a hardware supplier that produced a faulty camera could be held responsible.

Another possibility: Going deeper into the system, the AI itself could be held responsible, according to Gabriel Hallevy, a law professor at Ono Academic College in Israel.

  • But it's hard to punish AI if it's found guilty. The simplest sanction would be to decommission the offending car or program.
  • There are more creative options: Hallevy suggested that AI found to have broken a law could be shut off for a period of time — the equivalent of a prison sentence. Or a driverless car could have to perform community service, like cleaning the streets.

What to watch: Many laws hinge on whether a reasonable person would have acted a certain way. But AI is not yet capable of emulating a reasonable person's decision-making.

What to expect: The first big AI liability case will likely cause a temporary chill in AI development, says the University of Brighton's John Kingston, as company lawyers scramble to protect their employers.

10. But officer...

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Drivers know to pull over if they hear sirens or see flashing lights in the rearview mirror. Waymo’s driverless vans do, too, the company says.

Here's what happens if police try to stop a Waymo vehicle:

  • The vehicle unlocks the doors and rolls down the windows.
  • Instead of hearing the usual “Gee, officer, was I speeding?” the cop pushes a button to talk to a human. A Waymo employee can be summoned.
  • Excuses will be hard to come by: Waymo vehicles contain a trove of data tracking their every move.
  • If the vehicle's in an accident and needs towing, police are asked to avoid damaging the sensors.

Of course, autonomous vehicles are supposed to be perfect drivers, so chances are the officer won't be writing a ticket anyway.

Another sign that life will change with robots in the driver's seat.