February 13, 2017

What Does the Self-Driving Vehicle Future Look Like?

Science Group Offers Principles to Help Make the Most of Autonomous Vehicles

WASHINGTON (February 13, 2017)—Self-driving vehicles are coming—but what kind of future are they bringing along? That depends on the decisions we make now, say the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

UCS has released a new set of principles, Maximizing the Benefits of Self-Driving Vehicles, to make sure we maximize the benefits, and minimize the risks, of autonomous vehicles.

“Self-driving vehicles have enormous potential to improve transportation, but they also come with risks,” said Joshua Goldman, a senior policy analyst in the Clean Vehicles program at UCS. “We need to prepare for these vehicles as they become available over the next several years, and as we start to make decisions about how this technology happens.”

There are no fully autonomous vehicles in common use today, but many vehicles have partially autonomous features today and several automakers have indicated fully self-driving cars could be available as early as 2020 or 2021. Autonomous vehicles could radically transform our transportation system, our economy, our cities and the climate.  

“We need to be asking the right questions now so that we’re not blindsided by the changes that are coming,” Goldman said. “We can start putting policies and practices in place to move us in the right direction and make sure these new technologies benefit everyone—or, if we’re not careful, we could wind up creating new problems and reinforcing the worst features of our transportation system. These principles will help us make better decisions.”

UCS experts lay out seven principles to help guide the self-driving future:

  • Safer Transportation: Transportation must be safer for every person, whether they’re in a vehicle, walking or cycling.
  • Cleaner Vehicles: We need to cut transportation-related air pollution and lower to the greatest extent possible the carbon emissions that cause climate change.
  • Integrated Transit: Self-driving vehicles and mass transit must work together to reduce congestion and improve quality of life.
  • Improved Access: Transportation access must improve for everyone, regardless of race, income, geography, age or disability.
  • Just Transition: We must consider the needs of workers whose jobs will be disrupted by autonomous technology, and make sure that job opportunities created by self-driving vehicles are available to all.
  • Secure Sharing: Data about self-driving vehicles must be accessible so we can understand the changes that are taking place and make good policies, while protecting the privacy of users.
  • Livable Cities: We need to foster livable cities and ensure that we’re creating infrastructure that works for everyone in communities, not just vehicles.

If we keep these principles in mind, we’re going to be better equipped to deal with the big changes that are coming, and to build a cleaner, safer and more accessible transportation system in the future.

“Self-driving vehicles could be the biggest innovation in transportation since the first automobiles rolled out a century ago,” said Goldman. “We have a chance, today, to decide what we want that future to look like—and what values we’ll use to make those decisions.” 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.