Driverless Cars Are In Our Future

Dec 30, 2017

Credit National League of Cities

Commentary: With the Holidays comes what has become an annual story in recent years—Amazon’s effort at automating delivery. Drones or driverless cars, Amazon is on the verge of eliminating humans from the delivery process.

This is far from idle speculation. Each year, Amazon’s efforts become less science fiction and more science.

Fully driverless cars are expected to be common on the nation’s roads by 2050. Already, fully automated vehicles can be found in highly controlled settings, such as driverless tractors used by farmers in crop cultivation. Many vehicles have driver assist that help prevent lane drift or limit tailgating. And of course, there is the greatest technological breakthrough of our time, automated parallel parking.

The Society of Automotive Engineers International (who knew such an organization exited) has established an internationally recognized standard that identifies six levels of driving automation, logically labeled Level 0 to Level 5.

Standard unautomated cars are Level 0. Commercially available cars are either Level 1, standalone functionality like parallel parking, or level 2, in which complex systems are able to take on some of the dynamite driving tasks—think lane drift assist. At Level 5, the car takes on all dynamic driving duties—a presence of a drive is not necessary. Level 5 autos don’t really exist yet, although examples such as the Google car are getting close.

At present, Daimler AG has the largest installed base of automated driver technologies. Their cars can keep in the same lane, maintain safe distance, follow the car in front, including stopping when necessary, assisted steering, switch lanes, and overtake. Tesla and Nissan have similar technologies available, but have fewer automated cars on the road.

The economic impact of driverless cars is likely to be substantial. On study by Intel, for example, estimated the impact at $7 trillion dollars by 2050. This assumes fully automated Level 5 are widely available by then. This also assumes that consumers and businesses will be using Mobility-as-a-Service businesses rather than owning an automobile.

The number of human error caused accidents, currently about 90% of all accidents, will be to a large extent eliminated. Fewer accidents will mean less congestion. Improvements in efficiency in the use of roadways will also mean less congestion. Less congestion effectively means more road compacity, which means less road construction.

Fully automated driverless cars will have a major social impact. Just as smart phones allowed us to bring work home with us in a way like never before, driverless cars will allow extension of the work day onto the freeway. No more mediation; no more books-on-tape.

Meanwhile at the same time that many workers become more productive, others will find themselves without a job. Truck driver has long been a job that provides a good solid blue collar jobs that will be eliminated in the driverless economy.

Christopher A. Erickson, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at NMSU. He doesn’t like to drive, so is looking forward to the driverless economy. The opinions express may not be shared by the regents and administration of NMSU. Chris can be reached at