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Autonomous vehicles are also known as self-driving, driverless, autos, or robotic vehicles. The automobiles are unmanned and can sense their surroundings and so navigate without human intervention. On November 7, 2017, a firm called Waymo announced that it would begin testing driverless cars. During the fists tests, operators observed how the automobile autonomously navigated the streets. This signaled the beginning of a push by major automakers including as Tesla, Mercedes, Toyota, and others to develop innovative technologies for their automobiles. Autonomous vehicles employ a variety of systems, including laser light, odometry and computer, radar, and GPS. Some advanced control systems can interpret sensory information which enables the cars to identify appropriate paths to navigate through and also to maneuver obstacles and signage. This paper seeks to analyze how the autonomous cars work, their designs, their economic and political impact, and also their effect on the general environment.
There are a lot of unanswered questions with one of the most fundamental being their effect on travel behavior. Some people believe that the introduction will increase car ownership given that they will be easy to operate and would, therefore, be efficient. If this is the case, then urban centers will experience a rise in traffic as the number of privately owned vehicles will rise. Other people of a contrary view believe that the introduction would discourage private ownership of cars and instead encourage sharing hence making them appropriate for transportation. Other anticipated changes include the development of reliable transportation (Brett, 2016). This could come about mainly because the self-driving cars will, activities such home deliveries cheaper hence rendering the supermarkets and the hypermarkets superfluous. Currently, the government of the United States has classified automation into six main levels. The lowest level of zero is where a human driver does everything whereas the highest level is whereby the automated systems perform all the tasks. Laws covering this dictate that manufacturers are mandated with the responsibility of certifying the vehicles that are used on public roads. This implies that in case there is a complaint regarding the operation of an automatic vehicle on the roads then there are no specific laws that can be referred to which then begs the question of how legislators are planning to provide for this new sector (Karpilow & Winston, 2016).
In 2013, the United Kingdom government reported that it was allowing the test of self-driving cars on public roads. Before this announcement, most tests were only restricted to private roads or property. A year later, France followed suit also pronouncing that public roads would be open for automatic car testing by 2015. In order to provide for this, it planned to open a 200km road through Bordeaux and Strasbourg that would specifically provide for the tests. When 2015 came, France through the Intelligent Transportation Systems announced that autonomous vehicles were officially allowed to operate in France.
In 2015, there was a lawsuit against major vehicle companies such as Toyota, GM, and Ford who were accused of producing vehicles that were vulnerable to hackers. According to the suit, the companies were endangering the lives of their consumers given that the control of essential functions such as steering and braking could be taken over and cars commandeered. During the same year the Federal Department of Environment, Energy, Transport, and Communications permitted the test of the autonomous Volkswagen Passat by Swisscom. Then after, states such as California passed legislation to allow the operation of autonomous cars on its roads. According to the Assembly Bill No.2866, the Department of Motor vehicles needed to first comply with the set regulation by 1 July 2018 before the provisions of the Bill could take effect (Winter et al., 2017).
In the United Kingdom, the year 2016 saw companies such as the Singapore Land Transit Authority in conjunction with Delphi Automotive Plc launching a test run for a range of taxis referred to as 'on-demand autonomous cab service.' The companies announced that the service would be fully operational by 2017. Still, in 2016, the United States Department of Transportation released the Federal Automated Vehicle policies which were adopted by states such as California. After the adoption, California under the Department of Motor Vehicles issued an order to remove self-driving cars from its roads. During the time, there had been numerous reports of traffic light violations. Uber, a leading taxi provider, was quick to blame the accidents on human-error and announced that it had suspended the culpable drivers (Brett, 2016).
At the moment, laws in the United States and around the world envisage but do not specifically prohibit fully-automated cars. In the U.S, states such as Florida, Nevada, Washington, Hawaii, Michigan, Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and California have enacted laws to regulate the vehicles. It is incidents such as the one mentioned above that have instigated the enactment of most laws. More developments of more sophisticated systems like the Autopilot introduced by Tesla continue to trigger more discussions and debates on the appropriate laws and acceptable standards of the cars. In September 2016, the United States Department of Transportation and the National Economic Council announced federal standards that provide for; repercussions if the vehicles' technology fails, how to prevent accidents, and how passengers' privacy can be protected. Most of the policies passed so far have mainly focused on managing the new innovation and to provide a patchwork of the state laws (Karpilow & Winston, 2016).
Nevada was among the first states in the United States to pass laws authorizing autonomous cars. The laws were passed in June 2011 and saw the operation of autonomous cars on the state's public roads. According to the laws' provisions, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles would provide safety regulations and standards that dictate the responsibilities of the owners of the vehicles and areas where tests can be carried out. The legislation was received well by organizations such as Google stating that they were going to abide by the laws while testing their driverless cars. The Nevada laws set up a definition of an autonomous vehicle stating that it is a motor vehicle that utilizes sensors, global positioning systems, and artificial intelligence to coordinate or drive itself without input from a human operator (Winter et al., 2017). The legislation goes further to acknowledge that operators do not need to attend the car given that it is self-operational. This means that the issue of distraction by operations in case of accidents may not necessarily be seen as prosecutable. However, the law still requires that an operator is behind the wheel and one on the passenger's seat during tests.
Evidently, the major design of the vehicles is their autonomy. The general public is eager to enjoy a driverless car. The feature is set to bring about numerous benefits including increased safety, improved mobility, reduced mobility and infrastructure costs, improved customer satisfaction, and reduced crime. Researchers have also established that the innovation will significantly reduce accident rates and therefore reduced mortality rates and the associated costs of insurance. The autonomous cars have also been projected to; improve traffic flow, enhance mobility for children and the elderly, reduce fuel consumption, and cause a significant reduction in the need for parking space especially in urban centers.
Mercedes and Tesla are currently on the forefront in the development of driverless cars. However, so far Mercedes is registered more success compared to Tesla. It has introduced the systems such as the standard Distronic Plus feature that includes; brake assist, parking pilot, steering pilot, night-vision cameras, cross-traffic assistant systems, and automatic danger warnings. In 2016, Mercedes introduced a new brake assist system named the Active Brake Assist 4 which has emergency braking assistant and a pedestrian recognition system. At the time of their introduction, there had not been any such efficient systems (Brett, 2016).
Vehicle manufacturers gradually implement new advancement of their autonomous features. As mentioned above, Mercedes continues to boast of extensive tests with few reported crashers. A major setback was back in 2005 when a test on its older Distronic system caused an accident. At the time, the company was struggling with managing its braking system. Through such tests, it has managed to develop more efficient systems like the ones mentioned above. As time goes by, more technological advancement will see upgrades of even the present systems. For instance, in addition to working on autonomous systems, both companies are trying to incorporate engines that use renewable energy such as solar power. When this advancement becomes available and effective then some of the environmental concerns on automatic vehicles can be done away with (Karpilow & Winston, 2016).
Once readily available and fully operational, self-driving cars will have profound impacts on the environment. Debates continue to rise on whether the effect will be for better or for worse. This question will be determined by the type of technology that will be adopted for the invention. If all companies take the direction of 'green energy' as they are now then the cars are projected to reduce energy consumption in transportation by over 90-200 percent. This is according to the United States Department of Energy. The world is at the moment concerned about the greenhouse gas emission. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a quarter of the emissions come from the transportation sector. If the autonomous vehicles utilize renewable resources then the impact on the environment would be significant.
A major environmental implication is that the self-driving cars may increase the use of vehicles. The easy operation of the cars means that people will desire to travel more and given that the energy efficiency will be improved there is a risk of over-traveling. The settlement may change as well given that people will see no harm in living a few more miles away from work or home. Given that the autonomous cars can drive themselves with less or no human input people like the ones living in New York where parking fees are expensive can decide to send their car driving around and avoid the fees. This infers that there is a real possibility that people will abuse the new invention and probably also misuse the fuel regardless of their environmental friendliness (Brett, 2016).
As cars become fully autonomous and become commercially available, there are concerns about how they could potentially disrupt the normal functioning of the society. Currently, the adoption rate does not provide clear statistics on the scale of the receivership. Policy makers from all over the world are still trying to understand the dynamics behind the introduction of these cars. Driverless cars can be dangerous but companies are pushing the new technology through while the public is generally not ready. As pointed out above, the technology is new and not even governments understand the extent of the possible impacts. The introduction of this invention needs to be gradual and all stakeholders need to be involved. The trend of waiting for accidents to occur in order for changes to be made may have detrimental impacts. However, it is important to note the autonomous cars present far much more opportunities for positive returns including reduction of pollution and improvement of transport efficiency.
Brett, J. A. (2016). Thinking Local about Self-Driving Cars: A Local Framework for Autonomous Vehicle Development in the United States (Doctoral dissertation).
Karpilow, Q., & Winston, C. (2016). A New Route to Increasing Economic Growth: Reducing Highway Congestion with Autonomous Vehicles. unpublished paper.
Winter, K., Cats, O., Martens, K., & van Arem, B. (2017). A Stated-Choice Experiment on Mode Choice in an Era of Free-Floating Carsharing and Shared Autonomous Vehicles (No. 17-01321).
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