Since the 1930s, science fiction writers dreamed of a future with self-driving cars, and building them has been a challenge for the AI community since the 1960s. By the 2000s, the dream of autonomous vehicles became a reality in the sea and sky, and even on Mars, but self-driving cars existed only as research prototypes in labs. Driving in a city was considered to be a problem too complex for automation due to factors like pedestrians, heavy traffic, and the many unexpected events that can happen outside of the car’s control. Although the technological components required to make such autonomous driving possible were available in 2000—and indeed some autonomous car prototypes existed  —few predicted that mainstream companies would be developing and deploying autonomous cars by 2015. During the first Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) “grand challenge” on autonomous driving in 2004, research teams failed to complete the challenge in a limited desert setting.
But in eight short years, from 2004-2012, speedy and surprising progress occurred in both academia and industry. Advances in sensing technology and machine learning for perception tasks has sped progress and, as a result, Google’s autonomous vehicles and Tesla’s semi-autonomous cars are driving on city streets today. Google’s self-driving cars, which have logged more than 1,500,000 miles (300,000 miles without an accident), are completely autonomous—no human input needed. Tesla has widely released self-driving capability to existing cars with a software update. Their cars are semi-autonomous, with human drivers expected to stay engaged and take over if they detect a potential problem. It is not yet clear whether this semi-autonomous approach is sustainable, since as people become more confident in the cars' capabilities, they are likely to pay less attention to the road, and become less reliable when they are most needed. The first traffic fatality involving an autonomous car, which occurred in June of 2016, brought this question into sharper focus.
In the near future, sensing algorithms will achieve super-human performance for capabilities required for driving. Automated perception, including vision, is already near or at human-level performance for well-defined tasks such as recognition and tracking. Advances in perception will be followed by algorithmic improvements in higher level reasoning capabilities such as planning. A recent report predicts self-driving cars to be widely adopted by 2020. And the adoption of self-driving capabilities won’t be limited to personal transportation. We will see self-driving and remotely controlled delivery vehicles, flying vehicles, and trucks. Peer-to-peer transportation services (e.g. ridesharing) are also likely to utilize self-driving vehicles. Beyond self-driving cars, advances in robotics will facilitate the creation and adoption of other types of autonomous vehicles, including robots and drones.
It is not yet clear how much better self-driving cars need to become to encourage broad acceptance. The collaboration required in semi-self-driving cars and its implications for the cognitive load of human drivers is not well understood. But if future self-driving cars are adopted with the predicted speed, and they exceed human-level performance in driving, other significant societal changes will follow. Self-driving cars will eliminate one of the biggest causes of accidental death and injury in United States, and lengthen people’s life expectancy. On average, a commuter in US spends twenty-five minutes driving each way. With self-driving car technology, people will have more time to work or entertain themselves during their commutes. And the increased comfort and decreased cognitive load with self-driving cars and shared transportation may affect where people choose to live. The reduced need for parking may affect the way cities and public spaces are designed. Self-driving cars may also serve to increase the freedom and mobility of different subgroups of the population, including youth, elderly and disabled.
Self-driving cars and peer-to-peer transportation services may eliminate the need to own a vehicle. The effect on total car use is hard to predict. Trips of empty vehicles and people’s increased willingness to travel may lead to more total miles driven. Alternatively, shared autonomous vehicles—people using cars as a service rather than owning their own—may reduce total miles, especially if combined with well-constructed incentives, such as tolls or discounts, to spread out travel demand, share trips, and reduce congestion. The availability of shared transportation may displace the need for public transportation—or public transportation may change form towards personal rapid transit, already available in four cities, which uses small capacity vehicles to transport people on demand and point-to-point between many stations.
As autonomous vehicles become more widespread, questions will arise over their security, including how to ensure that technologies are safe and properly tested under different road conditions prior to their release. Autonomous vehicles and the connected transportation infrastructure will create a new venue for hackers to exploit vulnerabilities to attack. There are also ethical questions involved in programming cars to act in situations in which human injury or death is inevitable, especially when there are split-second choices to be made regarding whom to put at risk. The legal systems in most states in the US do not have rules covering self-driving cars. As of 2016, four states in the US (Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan), Ontario in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Switzerland have passed rules for the testing of self-driving cars on public roads. Even these laws do not address issues about responsibility and assignment of blame for an accident for self-driving and semi-self-driving cars.
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