This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.
In a nutshell
- Why did we decide to look into this area? Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles may be able to save roughly ten thousand lives and a hundred billion dollars a year in the U.S., making their development a topic of substantial humanitarian significance. Autonomous vehicles will also likely have major impacts on urban planning and the advisability of various infrastructure projects, and we wondered whether the prospect of autonomous vehicles was being appropriately incorporated into long-term planning in these areas.
- What did we learn? Other actors appear to largely have appropriate incentives to invest in research, development, and advocacy for effective policies around autonomous vehicles. The implications of autonomous vehicles for infrastructure projects and other long-term plans are very uncertain at this point, and are subject to increasing attention from urban planners and others. At this point, we do not see a major asymmetry between the importance of these issues and the funding and attention currently available, though we have very limited confidence in that judgment.
1. Why did we decide to look into this area?
We decided to look into this area for two reasons:
- Widespread use of safe autonomous vehicles may eventually substantially reduce the rate of traffic accidents, which account for more than 30,000 deaths and an estimated $300 billion of economic costs annually in the U.S.1 Fagnant and Kockelman 2013 estimate that 50% market penetration of autonomous vehicles would save roughly $100 billion/year in economic costs and roughly 10,000 lives per year, though we have not vetted these estimates.2 Although we would guess that for-profit corporations have appropriate incentives to invest in research and development in this area, we wanted to confirm that impression and to investigate whether there might be other activities necessary for eventual widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles that were being overlooked.
- The prospect of widespread use of autonomous vehicles may have implications for major infrastructure investment projects and other long-term social plans that are not being appropriately incorporated into existing analyses.3
2. Our process
We reviewed a number of reports about the state of autonomous vehicle technology and regulation and spoke with two people with knowledge of the field:
- Daniel Fagnant, Assistant Professor at University of Utah (starting August 2014) and author of Fagnant and Kockelman 2013.
- Bryant Walker Smith, Fellow, the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford and the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School; Lecturer, Stanford Law School.
3. What did we learn?
Our impression continues to be that for-profit corporations have appropriate incentives for pursuing most of the relevant research and development necessary for the deployment of autonomous vehicles.4 Although philanthropists may be better suited to supporting work on advocacy than research itself, many actors are already moving to regulate autonomous vehicles and appear to be doing so broadly in line with the public interest.5 The people we spoke with broadly seem to perceive the field of autonomous vehicle research to receive an appropriate amount of funding and attention,6 though Bryant Walker Smith noted a few areas that current actors may be overlooking.7 The long-term implications of autonomous vehicles currently seem to be too uncertain to warrant inclusion in planning to for major infrastructure projects and other long-term social investments, and the relevant professional communities appear to be paying increasing attention to the prospects for autonomous vehicles.8 Reports on autonomous vehicles lay out many areas for further research and policy development, and we expect that significantly more investment will be required in coming years.9 However, in our very limited review of this field, we did not see evidence of a clear asymmetry between current funding and importance, and we expect that more traditional automative research and policy funders will enter over time as these questions become more salient. Based on our current understanding, we see further investigation of other potential focus areas as a more promising use of our resources at the moment.
4. Questions for further investigation
Our research in this area has been very limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.
Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:
- How might additional funding for research accelerate development of autonomous vehicles?
- What kinds of planning decisions should take the prospect of autonomous vehicles into account, and what role should that prospect play in decision-making? How important are the decisions that might be affected?
- What types of research are best-suited for philanthropic, as opposed to government or for-profit, funding?
|Anderson et al. 2014||Source (archive)|
|Fagnant and Kockelman 2013||Source (archive)|
|Notes from a conversation with Bryant Walker Smith on April 11, 2014||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with Daniel Fagnant on March 18, 2014||Source|
|Planning for Autonomous Driving||Source (archive)|
|The Impact of Automation on Environmental Impact Statements||Source (archive)|