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The Wide Footprint of Autonomous Vehicles

By Jacob Susskind

Lately, news is abuzz with stories about autonomous vehicles (AVs). AVs are just like cars as we know them, except a supercomputer powered by artificial intelligence is the driver. The computer uses an array of sensors (usually cameras or light based and infrared radar systems) to understand its surroundings and an algorithm to make decisions based on what it sees. The algorithm works by learning from training data.

The initial upshot of autonomous vehicles is for companies like Uber, Lyft, and UPS, who spend a large part of their operating budget on paying drivers. If this cost is removed, Uber and Lyft can become profitable, which has been a problem for them – Uber generated $11 billion this year in revenue and a loss of $1.8 billion. UPS also has to pay long distance truckers who are unionized. A key metric in AVs is distance between disengagements of the autonomous system. A Waymo car typically travels upwards of 5000 miles between disengagements. Waymo also has millions of miles worth of training data. On a grander scale, autonomous vehicles can ‘platoon’ or drive together in a way that makes them more efficient, and reduce the amount of car accidents.

Despite all of the advancements made by companies like Waymo and Cruise, autonomous vehicles still face hurdles in full adoption. The automotive industry is highly regulated because of safety implications and consumers are wary untested technology – nobody wants to be a human guinea pig. To overcome these obstacles, the industry would have to amend the FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards). The FMVSS currently outlines the safety specs that cars must adhere to, including number and position of airbags, seatbelts, indicators, brake lights—the FMVSS even specifies that every car must have a steering wheel. Regulations like this are put in place by government agencies, whose job it is to interpret and implement the laws from congress. To amend this, most car companies have pledged lobbying support for the AV START act, which would open the door for testing and make the US more accommodating for AV development and rollout.

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