How long before autonomous vehicles (AVs) become available to the mass market?

As soon as the end of the decade, if manufacturers like Nissan and Volvo have their way. Indeed, test versions of Google’s self-driving car are already motoring their way around California and Nevada.


How soon before they have a significant effect on the U.S. transportation system, including infrastructure design and operations? Probably a lot longer.

But it’s not too soon to begin thinking about the potentially paradigm-changing effects cars with self-driving features will have on mobility and how its managed, according to David J. Fagnant, a Ph.D. candidate in Transportation Engineering at the University of Texas-Austin, and the Eno Center for Transportation’s 2012 Fellow.

Fagnant shared some of his research at the DC-based non-partisan think tank in a paper, Preparing a Nation for Autonomous Vehicles: Opportunities, Barriers and Policy Recommendations, (Note: the paper may be downloaded for free from Eno’s website).

In addition to the well-documented potential of AVs to reduce congestion, cut fuel usage, and improve infrastructure capacity, Fagnant finds that self-driven vehicles could reduce the incidences of fatal crashes by 40 percent or more.

And even in only 10% of vehicles on the highways were automated, their annual economic impact could exceed $25.5 billion, with more to come as more AVs hit the road.

But for all of AVs’ promise, there are no shortage of implementation barriers. One is the purchase and annual operating cost of AVs themselves, expected to be well beyond the reach of all but the most affluent car buyers for some time. (The LIDAR system alone is estimated to cost $70,000.) Though AVs’ sophisticated technologies are expected to gradually come down in price, no one can predict how quickly that will happen.

(On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that long ago that people gawked at the brick-sized cell phones made famous by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.)

And if AVs do catch on in freight movement, taxis, and similar fleet operations, what’s the economic effect of all the displaced drivers and other support personnel?

There are also issues such as state-level licensing and testing standards, liability (how much control should a human have over an AV, and when), electronic security, owner privacy, and sharing roads with conventional vehicles to deal with.

For transportation system designers and owners, there are questions of what immediate and long-term changes to infrastructure systems will be needed. AVs may be adaptable to existing road and bridge networks, but at what point will engineers have to start adapting the built infrastructure to serve AVs?

(As AV sensors rely on detection of pavement marking and other physical features, among other things, there’s almost an immediate maintenance issue.)

So many questions, and just trying to answer them raises still more issues that have to be resolved. Like most papers of its type, Fagnant calls for a strong federally supported program of research to help address the myriad holes in our understanding of AV (including infrastructure and operations) and develop appropriate policy for moving forward.

Now, calling for more federal dollars may cause some eye-rolling in this era of perpetual budget stalemate. But Fagnant correctly notes that this role is not different than the one the federal government has played to explore and advance other groundbreaking innovations and technology in the past.

And considering that even a limited proliferation of AVs could nevertheless reshape the way we live our lives (including where and how we live them), the questions are well worth exploring. If the dynamics of AVs’ support technologies and the effects they’ve already had on 21st Century lifestyles are any indication, that distant horizon of an AV-driven world may not be so far away after all.