Beyond the Wheel: How Automonous Vehicles are Reshaping Society

In a world where technology propels us forward at an astonishing pace, one innovation stands out, promising to revolutionize our very notion of transportation: autonomous vehicles. With their mainstream arrival expect in the next few decades, what was once dreamt of in science fiction is now under serious debate in the automotive industry and beyond. Automotive vehicles, capable of navigating our roads with minimal human intervention, enhancing our safety, improving our efficiency, and transforming the way we move from point A to point B, have the power to reshape society as we know it. Join us as we explore how autonomous vehicles will profoundly impact our daily lives.


Picture, for a moment, a world where the act of driving is no longer confined to human hands, but rather entrusted to the capable embrace of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Your daily commute begins by booking a nearby AV in your town, and within 5 minutes, it arrives at your front door. The route to your destination is meticulously crafted using vast amounts of big data, seamlessly downloaded to the vehicle through the cloud and shared between other AVs via a deep network. Any sources of unsafety, like road works, weather or congestion are considered in the AV’s intelligent architecture so that you are guaranteed a safer journey than any human driver. You arrive at your destination with time to spare, and the cost? No less than a cup of coffee.

While the utopia described above is what drives innovation, every coin has two sides. A controversial debate has given rise to profound questions that cannot be ignored regarding how intelligent machines can integrate into our daily lives. American author Isaac Asimov famously proposed three laws of robotics be written into every robot in his novels, and with the growth of AVs quickly fitting into the ‘robot’ profile, these laws have never been more relevant. They essentially encompass the following instructions, and are the underlying source of moral and ethical debate around the design of AVs:

  1. The first law is that a robot shall not harm a human, or by inaction allow a human to come to harm.
  2. The second law is that a robot shall obey any instruction given to it by a human unless this conflicts with the first law.
  3. The third law is that a robot shall avoid actions or situations that could cause it to come to harm itself unless this law conflicts with the first or second law.

Autonomous vehicles have already been a part of society in more ways than we think. Industries such as mining pits and farms have already embraced autonomous vehicles, to demonstrate their effectiveness and pave the way for potential adoption in other sectors. With the rise of electric vehicles and the landscape shift away from combustion fuel sources, the prospect of autonomy has never been brighter. However, with clearer possibilities also come clearer challenges, and to truly reach an automotive utopia we must weigh how AVs will impact our immediate and surrounding lives. In this article, we will discuss how the rise of AVs will influence traffic and roads, public transport, infrastructure, finance and technology, our lifestyles and more. Before doing so, a brief outline of the levels of vehicle autonomy are outlined below, as proposed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) (Synopsys, 2023):

I. Level 0: No Automation - Traditional, manually operated vehicles with no autonomous capabilities.

II. Level 1: Driver Assistance - Vehicles with basic driver assistance features that require the driver's full attention.

III. Level 2: Partial Automation - Vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that can control acceleration and steering simultaneously, but the driver must remain engaged.

IV. Level 3: Conditional Automation - Vehicles capable of autonomous driving under specific conditions, with the driver ready to intervene when necessary. This is commonly found in modern cars.

V. Level 4: High Automation - Highly autonomous vehicles that can handle most driving tasks within a defined operating domain. This is a level society is slowly introducing into mainstream driving.

VI. Level 5: Full Automation - This describes fully autonomous vehicles that can operate in any condition and environment without human intervention. Level 5 represents the highest level of autonomy, where the vehicle can perform all driving tasks in any situation.

Redefining Traffic, Our Roads, and Ethical Dilemmas

One of the most prominent changes that AVs will bring to the transportation industry is traffic and their associated accidents. The United States government estimates that a staggering 94% of traffic accidents stem from human error, making the case for the introduction of self-driving cars even more compelling. In fact, a recent study projected that if 90% of cars on US roads were autonomous, it could save an estimated 25,000 lives each year (Scholarly Community Encyclopaedia 2022, HandWiki). The remarkable safety record of autonomous vehicles, with fatal accidents occurring once every 3.3 million kilometres driven, further strengthens their potential. Frustrated commuters could reclaim up to 50 minutes of their precious time, no longer burdened by the necessity of driving. These newfound moments could be utilized for work, relaxation, or entertainment, enriching the quality of our daily routines.

Self-driving cars could increase roadway capacity, minimize traffic congestion, and optimise the drive cycle economy for higher speeds, leading to more efficient transportation. However, some predictions made can typically fall short of reality, as unforeseen influences may skew these figures dramatically, such as the interaction between human drivers and AVs. Paradoxically, the convenience afforded by autonomous vehicles may encourage more travel and with current policies, experts predict that autonomous vehicles could potentially increase total vehicle travel by 10-30% or more, leading to heightened congestion, infrastructure costs, crash risks, and pollution emissions (Litman T., 2023)

The impact also extends far beyond personal convenience. Our cities, currently designed around the wasteful practice of allocating numerous parking spaces for each vehicle, will undergo a radical shift. Not only do our cars spend a staggering 90% of their lives sitting idle in driveways or parking lots, but the economic implications are equally profound. The city of Hamburg, for example, raises an average annual sum of 30 million euros from parking fines alone (Tschiesner A., 2023). Studies have indicated that the number of required parking lots could be significantly reduced, particularly in the context of shared autonomous vehicles (Chai et al., 2019)

To reach the fruition of these exciting changes, some critical ethical questions must be answered. In the event of an accident involving a driverless car, who bears the responsibility? The manufacturer? Programmer? The local authorities? How would insurance companies handle claims? During times of confusion and congestion, the strict adherence of autonomous vehicles to traffic rules has the potential to result in collisions with less attentive human drivers. Should an AV leave more room for a motorcycle driver without a helmet? Risking the safety of those wearing one? A commonly debated question arises when comparing the decision-making process between a human and AI (artificial intelligence): Consider a scenario where an autonomous car is confronted with the choice of protecting the passengers or swerving to avoid a group of pedestrians. Surveys indicate people naturally believe it’s more ethical to save a group of people and sacrifice the passenger. Paradoxically, the same people believe that the preservation of their (a passenger’s) safety in their own AV is paramount at all costs.

The complexities continue to unravel as we delve deeper into the ethical challenges. What if the pedestrians crossing the road are not innocent children, but criminals committing a robbery? What if the passenger in the car is a scientist whose ground-breaking discovery has the potential to cure cancer? Allocating a "value" or kinship index to individuals to guide the vehicle's risk management procedures raises concerns about whether automakers should determine the worth of a person's life. There’s also the possibility that someone with a privately-owned autonomous vehicle could request it to circle streets (aptly named “zombie cars”) or return home when they go to work to avoid parking fees, exacerbating congestion and emissions. It's these types of contrasting viewpoints that reflect the complexity of human nature when confronted with tricky situations.

Public Transport, Our Data, and the Job Market

The rise of autonomous vehicles brings forth a wave of potential changes that extend beyond individual cars on the road. Public transport, a crucial lifeline for many, may face challenges with the advent of autonomous vehicles. Some studies suggest that public transport use could decline due to not only the loss of jobs and the rising popularity of personal AVs - potentially limiting accessibility for those who rely on it. Additionally, walking and cycling may see a decrease, reducing the associated health benefits. However, the potential saving generated by AVs cannot be overlooked. Wages and employee benefits make up a significant portion of a bus company's operating budget. By eliminating the need for human drivers, these savings can be redirected to improve service frequency, passenger facilities, and system capacity, making public transport more accessible and affordable. While human employees will still be required in planning and maintenance departments, the expectation is that most buses will become completely driverless in the next decade or two (Chai et al., 2019).

This change may not be wholly embraced as the paradigm shift required for individuals to relinquish control of the steering wheel may be frictional and hesitant. Are drivers ready to embrace the idea of giving up control? Will pedestrians feel comfortable entrusting their well-being to autonomous vehicles? These psychological aspects will play a significant role in the acceptance and adoption of self-driving cars. Professional drivers, unions and certain industries may resist their adoption due to potential job losses. In 2020, there were an estimated 13.6 million jobs in the automotive industry worldwide, many of which will be at risk within the next 10-15 years (Gitnux, 2023). Conversely, new roles will emerge in the form of autonomous vehicle specialists, technicians, and service managers, where upskilling new qualifications will be necessary for those entering these new roles (Zmud et al., 2017).

However, privacy concerns accompany the growth of autonomous driving. Fully autonomous vehicles, whether privately owned or part of a shared fleet, will collect vast amounts of personal data. This data can range from travel patterns and preferences to potentially sensitive information, and their software summation may be more complex than an aircraft computer system. Questions arise about the use and protection of this data in the hands of car manufacturers. Will it be sold to third parties for profit or used for targeted advertising? This becomes particularly concerning when we consider data hacking, a topic that will be discussed in later in this article (Chai et al., 2019).

While corporations may be under fire during inquiries into their data collection policies, the potential revenue to be generated by AVs may take the forefront of their priorities. Less sensitive to the initial costs, corporations can deploy autonomous vehicles that operate 24/7, maximizing their return on investment. Additionally, autonomous vehicles offer increased production efficiency, as they can travel for longer durations and require less downtime for maintenance and loading/unloading. This efficiency leads to a higher turnover of capital. However, it's essential to consider safety measures, as large trucks are responsible for a significant proportion of road deaths.

The acceptance and penetration of autonomous vehicles in the market may also take longer compared to previous vehicle technologies. Fleet turnover and durability of vehicles contribute to this extended timeline. It typically takes three to five decades for new vehicle technologies to reach a 90% penetration rate. The production of sophisticated software for autonomous vehicles is challenging and costly, and errors are expected. System failures, potentially resulting in severe accidents, are anticipated during the development process. However, exponential technological growth could potentially disrupt this projection (Litman T., 2019)

Infrastructure and Our Privacy

From parking spaces to road design, AVs will reshape our cities and transportation systems profoundly. One significant change will be the availability of parking spaces. With self-driving cars capable of dropping off passengers and parking themselves, parking lots will no longer require wide spaces to accommodate the opening of car doors. This could potentially free up an enormous amount of space, estimated at 230,000m2 in the UK alone (RAC Foundation). With fewer parking spaces and more land to be used for other purposes, AVs will have implications for urban planning and real estate valuation.

“A car is only used 4% of the time a day, and the remaining 96% of the time is parked in the parking lot. Each car has at least three or four exclusive parking spaces in the US.” - John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s driverless car program 2016

However, these benefits become shrouded underneath the behaviour of autonomous vehicles in complex urban environments with multiple pedestrians and congested streets. While autonomous vehicles will prioritize giving the right of way to pedestrians, the lack of human intuition and understanding of traffic norms may impact their effectiveness. Human drivers often navigate crowded streets by understanding when to yield and when to proceed, whereas autonomous vehicles may struggle to make these split-second decisions. The development of AI capable of mimicking human behaviour and decision-making in such scenarios is still a work in progress.

The social habits formed from the introduction of AVs will further reinforce the reduction in parking spaces and road congestion. As a cheaper alternative to privately owning an automated car, the popularity of AVs will see a dramatic rise in car sharing. As a result, urban areas will require fewer parking spaces, leading to changes in building design concepts and real estate valuation. This transformation will allow for the repurposing of land previously used for parking, potentially leading to the creation of bus lanes, bicycle lanes, small parks, and wider sidewalks. Road design will become more pedestrian-friendly, with longer crossing times and sidewalks without curbs. These changes will prioritize sustainable and accessible urban environments, and car sharing will become a deep-rooted institution. Influenced by the sharing concept, the auto parts and assemblies of the future will be standardized and generalized. Therefore, the structure of auto parts suppliers will change greatly (Chai et al., 2019).

As autonomous vehicles become more prevalent, road infrastructure will need to adapt to support their operation. Improved lane markings, signs designed to be read electronically, and wireless repeaters in tunnels for internet access may be necessary. Additionally, strengthening pavement areas beneath autonomous vehicle wheels will be crucial to prevent accelerated rutting, cracking, and other pavement deterioration caused by their accurate lane-keeping systems and reduced wheel wander. The demise of traffic lights is also anticipated, as autonomous vehicles will communicate wirelessly and exchange information in real-time, rendering traditional traffic lights obsolete. According to Adam Jonas, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, the four development phases of an autonomous automotive society are outlined in the image adjacent (Chai et al., 2019).

Finance and Technology

The advent of self-driving cars promises a transformation of financial models and technological systems, presenting both opportunities and challenges. Concerns of cybersecurity and information legitimacy must be promptly addressed as well, with failure to do so resulting in a catastrophic decline of the AV industry. With AVs harvesting a plethora of user data, as well as having an inherent reliance on external systems to control their speed, route and settings, the need for data security will be at an all-time high. If a hacker can manipulate a few lines of code in an AV, the reputation of autonomous driving can be smeared, accidents can be intentionally caused, or worse. The establishment of a reliable and secure communication network between autonomous vehicles is crucial for efficient and safe operation.

Hackers will have increased opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities within AV systems, compromising the central processor and gaining control over the entire vehicle. These attacks can occur in various ways, including indirect manipulation of data streams or direct invasion of the vehicle's computer system. The consequences of such breaches are severe, ranging from accidents to potential targeted attacks. As public confidence in autonomous vehicles would be shattered, years of research and development could go to waste. Hacking incidents in the past, such as the remote invasion of a Tesla vehicle by China's Tencent Keen Security Lab from many miles away, have highlighted the vulnerabilities associated with connected cars with rigorous recalls and updates following their success (Keen Security Lab of Tencent, 2019). Such incidents raise concerns about the potential scale of future cyber-attacks and their far-reaching economic, political, and even military effects. A relevant thought experiment surrounding which information should be in an AV can be found below:

“When I drive through a pothole, the car behind me can see that, and they can avoid the pothole as they’re driving. But if it were an autonomous car driving through this pothole, could it communicate and share data with the myriad of other vehicles that follow—not just one from the same model or the same manufacturer, but between all types of autonomous vehicles, regardless of the manufacturer? That solution is going to take a lot of time, as well as a lot of data, and there is a problem of information legitimacy” - US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Fox

The development of smart car technology brings forth opportunities for biometrics, with a projection that nearly one-third of vehicles will be equipped with biosensors by 2025 (Chai et al., 2019). Advanced biometric technologies such as gesture recognition and facial recognition enhance the driving experience, occupant health, and driving safety. However, this too would be data that may be vulnerable to data attacks, allowing hackers to essentially gain unlimited access to otherwise impenetrable data. The request from the governments of the United States and Germany for autonomous vehicles to be equipped with recorders and share data under specific conditions has sparked concerns among modern individuals who hold a strong regard for personal privacy (Chai et al., 2019).While cybersecurity remains a critical challenge, the economic potential of autonomous vehicles cannot be ignored. With autonomous vehicles designed to eliminate human driver error and reduce accidents, the McKinsey Institute estimates that property savings in the U.S. alone could reach a staggering $190 billion (McKinsey & Company, 2023).

Not only would this lead to a significant drop in death and injury rates, but it would also revolutionize the insurance industry. As vehicles become more reliable, insurers would need to shift their focus from insuring drivers against their mistakes to insuring against technical failures, resulting in a significant decrease in premiums. The insurance industry, for example, is expected to experience significant disruption. While safer driving conditions are advantageous for society, they pose a challenge for auto insurers. The decline in demand for certain auto insurance products, coupled with the emergence of new insurance tailored for autonomous vehicles, could lead to a shrinkage of the auto insurance market by more than 80% by 2040 (Simpson. A, 2015). However, existing companies may find high-profit margins in the autonomous car policy sector, charging car manufacturers instead of individual drivers.

The introduction of driverless technology is expected to revolutionize the sharing economy, significantly reducing travel costs. Uber's data reveals that the cost per mile for a vehicle with a human driver is $2.8, with 80% of that cost attributed to the driver. Once fully automated, the rental cost per mile could drop to a mere $0.53, resulting in a 70% reduction in travel expenses (Chai et al., 2019). The synergy between autonomous driving and the sharing economy is expected to generate substantial revenue, with Morgan Stanley projecting $1.3 trillion annually in the United States alone (Gomes L., 2016).

Ultimately, autonomous vehicles have the potential to generate significant economic returns. With reduced traffic congestion and individuals gaining extra time previously spent driving, the overall economic benefits could reach at least $100 billion, assuming a conservative estimate of $5 per hour gained by each person (Chai et al., 2019). By 2035, autonomous driving could generate $300 billion to $400 billion in revenue according to a McKinsey analysis (McKinsey & Company, 2023).

Inevitable Lifestyle Changes

While traditional automakers may be hesitant to relinquish control over the steering wheel, phased upgrades and the integration of new technologies can allow for a smooth transition. The advancement of input modes, such as touch, voice, gesture, and brain-computer interfaces, will begin to replace manual steering, throttle, and brake inputs, although this replacement is itself debated as traditional automakers may be hesitant to relinquish control over the steering wheel. While autonomous driving technology can provide relief to tired or stuck drivers, the ability for drivers to regain control at any time is essential, but ensuring a safe transition remains a challenge. Disrupting a driver's attention while they are engrossed in activities like watching videos or listening to music requires careful consideration of how autonomous vehicles can effectively alert and engage human drivers.

Some argue for enhanced assistive technology, allowing drivers to maintain control while benefiting from autonomous features. Others (such as Big Tech) propose fully autonomous vehicles without steering wheels, aiming to maximize online time for individuals and explore new business models. However, the latter approach raises concerns for enthusiasts who value the joy and experience of driving, as it threatens the existence of industries built around the driving experience, such as luxury car manufacturers. Oliver Blume, CEO of Porsche, said in an interview that if driverless technology were to replace human driving, no one would buy a Porsche, whose main draw is the driving experience (Chai et al., 2019). There’s also the question of relating an AV to each driver; since each driver will have their driving style and preferences - to what degree will an AV accommodate someone’s individuality while remaining consistent with other AVs?

With a growing population coupled with the rising costs of car ownership, an opportunity for efficient car-user matching and innovative business models present itself apparently. This prospect aligns strongly with the optimistic projection that Level 5 autonomous vehicles will be safe and reliable by 2025 (Litman T., 2023). The reduction of traffic accidents, especially as the global population ages, remains a top priority for the automotive industry. As a result of their substantial labour expenses and relatively predictable travel circumstances, commercial vehicles such as long-haul freight trucks, buses, and local taxi services are expected to be among the first to adopt automation. However, it's important to note that commercial drivers fulfil various roles, including passenger assistance, security, unloading, monitoring, and maintenance. While the automation of these vehicles will lead to changes in certain vehicle operator jobs, the complete elimination of these roles is not anticipated.

The autonomous driving era is likely to bring subtle changes to both real estate and car ownership. The newfound ability to work effectively anywhere or during travel may prompt individuals to seek living arrangements outside densely populated cities. As a result, the dynamics of real estate values may shift, and the concept of car ownership may transform into a more convenient and cost-effective car rental model. According to predictions by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), most conventional automakers are expected to cease operations by 2030. This shift will have a ripple effect on peripheral industries, including the auto insurance market (with a current market value estimated at $1980 billion), the auto financial market ($98 billion), the parking market ($100 billion), and the aftersales market ($300 billion), which are all projected to be eliminated (Chai et al., 2019).

The implications of autonomous vehicles on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are multifaceted. While factors like eco-driving, platooning, and optimized traffic signals can contribute to reducing emissions, the increased travel facilitated by autonomous vehicles and the modal shift from other modes of transportation may offset those gains. The potential reduction in emissions may be most significant when AV penetration reaches 60-80% in society, at which point a “sharing economy” will be in place (Massar et al., 2021). To elaborate, (based on data from eMarketer) approximately 15 million Americans utilized shared travel or taxi services in 2016. By 2020, this figure is expected to exceed 20 million (Chai et al., 2019). As car sharing continues to evolve, the convenience of renting a car will surpass that of purchasing one, leading to a scenario where 99% of individuals no longer require personal car ownership.

“We expect that driverless technology will be mainly used in mainstream cars and commercial vehicles, and there are already freight vehicles that are basically unmanned. We expect that driverless technology is more suitable for shared travel services in the early stage, it is more convenient for fleet managers—sometimes automakers themselves, to deal with insurance, maintenance and other issues, the fleet can benefit from economies of scale.” - BMI Research Report (Chai et al., 2019).

In addition, there is a concern that shared autonomous vehicle (AV) services, if focused solely on profitable routes, may neglect underserved areas, leading to transportation disparities. To establish sustainable and inclusive transportation systems, it is crucial to prioritize equitable access to AVs and address the specific needs of marginalized communities. In a study conducted Sohrabi et al. 2020, it was found that autonomous vehicles have the potential to impact public health through 32 different pathways. Among these pathways, 17 were identified as having negative effects, while 8 were deemed positive. To optimize the health benefits, the researchers recommend implementing transportation demand management policies that prioritize shared, electric autonomous vehicles and prevent a surge in overall vehicle travel.

The Future of Autonomous Vehicles

The impact of autonomous vehicles on society is a topic that continues to evolve as research and understanding of the technology progresses. According to a survey by the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group in 2015, emerging market countries such as China, India, and the United Arab Emirates showed the highest acceptance rates, with up to 75% of Chinese consumers in support. Acceptance rates in Britain and the US stood at around 50%, while Japan and Germany had the lowest rates. While the public's awareness of self-driving vehicles is growing, knowledge about the technology remains limited, and as knowledge increases, acceptance and use of autonomous vehicles are expected to rise (Chai et al., 2019).

The shift towards autonomous vehicles presents opportunities for various sectors. E-commerce will rise due to passengers transitioning from driving to being driven by autonomous vehicles so that local businesses can leverage location-based services to target advertising based on specific routes and passenger demographics. Sectors such as car repair, rescue and emergency response, interior design, and entertainment, connected vehicles, and the hospitality industry will also see growth.

By 2035, it is expected that around 21 million cars will be autonomous, with a large portion of those units being fully self-driving (Southfield M, 2016). China is anticipated to become the largest market for autonomous vehicles (Chai et al., 2019). One concern is the growing power disparity between organizations controlling AV data and individuals in society. It is crucial to address this issue to ensure data privacy and fair access to information. The potential monopolization of humankind's basic need for travel by a single company could have significant economic consequences.

The transformation brought by autonomous vehicles can lead to the creation of new business forms, production methods, work patterns, and employment opportunities. Efforts should be made to create a new balance in society and ensure that the benefits of increased efficiency and wealth creation are shared for the well-being of humankind. As we navigate the path ahead, it is crucial to embrace these new changes, adapt to emerging technologies, and work towards creating a future that benefits all of society.


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