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Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are one of the most rapidly emerging transportation technologies, and have the potential to significantly change the way people think about trips, vehicle ownership, and places of residence. Vehicles are classified into one of five levels of automation based on their features and capabilities:

Type Year1 Description
No-automation Now The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls at all times.
Function-specific automation Now Automation involving one or more specific control functions. (ex. electronic stability control)
Combined-function automation 2017 Automation of at least two primary control functions that work in unison. (ex. adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering)
Limited self-driving automation 2020 These vehicles enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain conditions. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control.
Full self-driving automation 2025 The vehicle is designed to perform all safety critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.


Early versions of vehicles that fall between the combined-function automation and limited self-driving automation categories are anticipated to be available sometime in 2017.2 Tesla recently released a software update that included Autopilot features falling into the limited self-driving automation category.3 The amount of testing conducted using these systems has been extensive; Google’s autonomous vehicle system drove its one-millionth mile in May of 2015.4 The rapid development of this technology is not expected to slow. By 2020, it is likely that vehicles meeting the description of limited self-driving automation will be available on the market.5 Given the safety record of early autonomous vehicle prototypes, it is not unreasonable to envision a future where self-driving technology is required in all new cars and is eventually required for all cars on public roads. In Minnesota the rollout of autonomous vehicles may be slowed by concerns about performance in winter conditions.

Implications of Autonomous Vehicles

The implications of autonomous vehicles are far-reaching. Safety improvements may be one of the most important implications of autonomous vehicle adoption – unlike human drivers autonomous vehicles seldom get distracted or tired and have almost instantaneous perception. It is possible that a full deployment of autonomous vehicles could prevent thousands of deaths that happen in the United States. As a result of lower safety risks car insurance rates may decrease for people who use autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles will be able to follow each other at closer distances, increasing the capacity of our existing roadways, and potentially allowing for changes in traditional vehicle form. This is largely dependent on the emergence of connected vehicles that are able to communicate location and route with other vehicles around them. Larger vehicles may be able to carry more passengers in lighter vehicles, increasing fuel efficiency and boosting roadway capacity. Automated pick-up and delivery of people and goods may be possible if drivers are not required to be in vehicles at all times. Finally, autonomous vehicles offer vast improvements in mobility for those who are unable to drive for one reason or another. It is conceivable that an autonomous vehicle may be able to pick meet someone in a given location and bring them to their destination before embarking on another trip. This may also decrease the need for parking in many parts of the country.

1. Estimated year of adoption by University of Minnesota Researchers
2. Levinson & Boies, 2015
3. Tesla Motors
4. Google Self Driving Car Information
5. Levinson & Boies, 2015

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