Catalyst Spring 2017
How it works

Self-Driving Vehicles

Self-driving vehicles—also known as autonomous or “driverless” vehicles—are cars or trucks that operate without human drivers, using a combination of sensors and software for navigation and control. A growing number of partially autonomous vehicles are already in use, employing such technologies as parking assist and lane departure alert. These and other technologies are evolving fast; many major automakers—and some outside the auto industry, such as Google—now have self-driving cars in development and are vying to be the first to get them on road. Here’s how they work:

Autonomous vehicle diagram

Illustration: mathisworks/iStock; Rigsby Hull

Sends out sound waves that bounce off objects around the car and in its path. Radar can function in all weather conditions and can calculate the speed and distance of objects but cannot differentiate among them.

Laser Scanner
Also called the Light Detection and Ranging(LiDAR) system, this sends out light pulses that reflect off objects to generate a three-dimensional map of the vehicle’s surroundings. It can work in the dark by reading lines on the road.

Video Camera
Detects objects in front of the car such as traffic lights and works with the vehicle’s onboard computer to recognize moving obstacles such as pedestrians, bicyclists, or other cars.

Onboard Computer
Manages real-time input from the camera, radar, and laser scanner, and combines them with mapping and navigational data to control the vehicle’s operation.

Network Capabilities
Self-driving cars that are “connected” can communicate directly with other vehicles and/or infrastructure, such as next-generation traffic lights.

Steering toward a Just Future for Transportation

Autonomous vehicle technology may be the most significant innovation in transportation since the mass introduction of automobiles in the early 20th century. However, if self-driving vehicles are to deliver positive outcomes, public policy must guide the evolution of this technology.

For example, self-driving cars could perpetuate our national reliance on personal vehicles and erode public transit. Or, self-driving cars could reduce the cost and increase the convenience of ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber, encouraging more people to forgo owning a vehicle. That could also alleviate some inequities experienced in underserved communities. If self-driving vehicles lead to more miles traveled on America’s roads, the fuel used to power these vehicles take on even greater importance; widespread deployment of clean, renewable electricity could significantly reduce the transportation sector’s climate impact.

UCS experts have analyzed the potential impacts of self-driving cars, from safety to jobs to climate change, and developed seven principles that would maximize the benefits of this technology. Among these: ensure the safety of these vehicles, prioritize the goal of cutting pollution, support a just transition for displaced workers, and integrate self-driving vehicles with mass transportation for the benefit of all. Read the full principles.