The discussion surrounding automated vehicles persists, as companies, lawyers, and regulatory agencies wrestle with tough questions about society’s future alongside vehicles that drive themselves.

As we’ve reported over the past year, the federal government has emerged as a key member of this discussion. Just this year, Washington upped the ante: the Department of Transportation released their long-awaited set of guidelines for AVs , outlining safety expectations and encouraging uniformity in design. However, as many journalists and policy wonks have suggested, the regulations are meant to convey to automakers that "the door [is] wide open for driverless cars." One day before, President Obama published an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explaining his administration’s continued support for AVs

For many, this suggests that Washington is no longer a “key member” of this ongoing discussion; they are now stewarding it.

Whether this is true or not, the government’s support for AVs is completely unprecedented. History shows us that the government has never preemptively regulated technology — in fact, they’re usually slow to adapt and accommodate (a quick : despite the pleas of the cell phone pioneers at Bell Labs, it took federal regulators nearly three decades to provide radio frequencies and the infrastructure necessary for cellular communication). Beyond that, the United States government has never so strongly, and so publicly, encouraged the private sector to accelerate the development of a nascent technology.

Their reasons for doing this are multifaceted. Perhaps most superficially, AVs have the potential to create many regulatory and legislative problems — so, as David Roberts of Vox observes, with the DOT’s recent guidelines, the government is “trying to get ahead of the curve." But given what many of these problems represent — namely, issues with personal liability, security, and privacy — the policy’s strong, implicit endorsement by Washington might seem puzzling to the casual observer. As an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times recently asked: why be so confident in a technology whose future is ever changing and entirely uncertain — and beyond that, a technology in which experts state that “no one quite knows how it’s going to work”?

The answer requires us to look at the data and policies that reveal society’s current relationship with transportation —  and how this relationship affects public safety, the economy, and the environment. By doing this, we catch a glimpse of the way automated vehicles can potentially solve deeply-rooted, societal problems that are triggered by human error.

This is Washington’s rationale.

Public Safety:

The promise of self-driving cars—in essence, why Washington is so intent on stewarding their development—begins with public safety. This has long been the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s rhetoric on self-driving cars, even before the government made explicit its support last February. Probably for good reason: 95% of all traffic fatalities are the result of human error.

More than that, 41% of all human error fatalities are the result of “recognition errors”; what the DOT classifies as “driver’s inattention, internal and external distractions, and inadequate surveillance.” Barring computational aberration or failure, automated vehicles simply do not encounter these types of problems, therefore suggesting that an overwhelming majority of traffic incidents are correctable through automation.


Here, it’s also worth looking at the financial impact of decreasing a sizable number of accidents per year. A quick examination of incidental costs reveals that this most likely isn’t simply an issue of public safety for Washington: in 2015 alone, peripheral costs related to motor vehicle accidents (“incidental costs”) came out to roughly $412.5 billion.

While this financial burden is shared across states, the federal government, and private individuals, this price tag becomes increasingly burdensome when put next to all of the government’s federal expenses: $412.5 billion would amount to almost half of our annual discretionary spending.

Another way of looking at savings: According to a University of Texas report, if only 10% of the cars on U.S. roads were autonomous, more than $37 billion of savings could be realized via less wasted time and fuel. At 90%, the benefit rises to almost $450 billion a year. To, again, put this number into context: $450 billion is roughly 19% of what the federal government earned in 2015 income tax revenue.


The transportation sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and accounts for 27% of harmful gases emitted into the atmosphere. Automobiles currently consume two billion barrels of oil each year.

From a sustainability perspective, automated vehicles are hypothesized to be a fundamentally fuel solution due to a cumulative decrease in energy consumption, triggered by vehicles that always drive optimally. Per the Department of Energy, fuel usage could be decreased by 90%, given optimal use factors (notably, the DOE points out that the opposite opposite may also be a possible outcome).

While there are certainly other eco-friendly benefits projected to emerge from the develop automated vehicles, underlying most current studies on fuel usage is the notion that human driving is fraught with inefficiency. From taking a wrong turn, to making micro-level “mistakes” such as accelerating suboptimally, human imperfections that increase the size of our carbon footprint are projected to be lessened significantly by driverless cars.


Importantly, none of this should be seen as a definitive projection of benefits. Issues with regulation and security are sure to complicate the trajectory of certain benefits, and will do so in ways we can’t yet predict. Economic researchers continue to wonder how the existence of AVs will affect financial services market — insurance companies, lenders, and financial institutions — which comprise a significant chunk of America’s gross domestic product. A 2014 Investopedia report speculates that car many insurers lose the hundreds of billions of dollars they’d normally get from their premiums because of AVs. And if the net volume of car sales diminishes — as is widely expected with the advent of U.S. — what does that mean for the banks and creditors that currently lend 70% of car buyers money?

And beyond these financial and environmentally-driven questions, the oft-discussed issue around privacy and legality will continue to remain uncertain.>

But, as one energy pundit put it , “any new technology will need to overcome a number of obstacles before they become ubiquitous.” And, in the face of a monumental payout, the federal government is hedging that automated vehicles are no different.

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