ACT 101: What are Autonomous Vehicles?

March 16, 2020

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ACT 101 is a series of articles breaking down the basics of clean fuels, transportation technologies, funding programs, and other emerging trends.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) rely on technology that to a varying degree, allow the vehicle to become “self-driving” by sensing the surrounding environment of roadways, traffic lights, pedestrians, and other vehicles. The vehicle senses its environment using various types of technology including radar, LiDAR (light detection and ranging sensors), and cameras.

There are six different Levels of Driving Automation commonly referred to within AV technology. The levels are defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and range from Level 0 (no automation under all conditions) to Level 5 (no human attention required under all conditions).

Autonomous Vehicles for the Commercial Transport Sector

Fully autonomous capabilities applied to medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles could hold a great deal of promise in the commercial transport sector, primarily in decreasing or eliminating a large cost associated with goods movement—labor. Autonomous vehicle advocates insist AV technology and even assisted driver technology can greatly increase efficiencies, reduce travel time, and slash operating expenses including fuel and maintenance costs. Some researchers predict AV technology has the potential to save billions of dollars across trucking’s value chain.

Advocates insist that AV technologies can increase efficiencies, reduce travel time, and slash operating expenses.

Medium- and heavy-duty vehicles also lend themselves to autonomous technology especially well. Simply put, larger vehicles can host more, advanced sensors, higher up on the vehicles which provide for increased visibility. Certain commercial vehicles, for instance long-haul trucks operating primarily on stretches of interstate, also don’t have the same exposure to pedestrians and city traffic as light-duty vehicles do. Pedestrians and unpredictable cross-traffic have presented uniquely challenging roadblocks to implementing, testing, or scaling autonomous vehicle technology in more crowded city applications.

Autonomous Vehicle Manufacturers

Nearly every major global medium- and heavy-duty OEM is developing autonomous technology for the commercial sector. Promising startups and technology companies alike are also investing in AV development by partnering with OEMs to implement and test their technology. For instance, Daimler Trucks and Torc Robotics, partners in Daimler Trucks’ Autonomous Technology Group, recently announced they are expanding testing of automated truck technology to new public routes in the US. Google subsidiary Waymo was Google’s first self-driving car project but has now become its own standalone entity, recently raising a record $2.25 billion in funding to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology. Other AV technology developers include Argo AI, Aurora, and among many others.

Promise in the Commercial Sector

AV technology has primarily been implemented in the light-duty space however, AVs continue to show significant promise in the commercial sector, especially in the delivery and long-haul heavy-duty trucking space.

AVs are showing significant promise in the commercial sector, especially in the delivery and long-haul heavy-duty trucking space.

For instance Waymo and UPS recently launched  a pilot program using autonomous minivans for package delivery—shuttling packages from UPS store locations to a local UPS sorting facility for processing. The vehicles drive themselves, but still require a safety operator present inside the vehicle to monitor operations. UPS promises implementing automated and autonomous technology adds enormous customer value, enabling packages to be delivered to sorting facilities sooner and more frequently and creating an opportunities for later drop-offs.

In long-haul trucking, a heavy-duty long-haul truck equipped with autonomous technology recently completed a 2,800-mile cross-country trip from California to Pennsylvania in 41 hours. Powered by technology developed by, one of the first companies to acquire a California Vehicle Testing License, the vehicle is believed to have made the first autonomous cross-country freight trip and the first autonomous commercial delivery. This pilot project featured a safety operator aboard for the entirety of the drive, but the driver never had to intervene. While AV technologies have existed on some level for many years, fully autonomous and driverless Level 5 vehicles are still in progress and are not anticipated to become commercially available for at least ten more years.

Fully autonomous and driverless Level 5 vehicles are not anticipated to become commercially available for at least ten more years.

The Regulatory Landscape

The federal government has recognized the need to regulate AVs in a more methodical way. In the 2017-2018 legislative session, the House of Representatives introduced the SELF DRIVE Act, and the Senate introduced the AV START Act. Both acts address the development, testing, and implementation of AV technologies. Neither of the bills introduced made it to their respective floors for a vote.

At the state level, the number of states introducing legislation relating to AVs has been increasing gradually since 2012. To date, 29 states (including California) and Washington D.C. have implemented such legislation. Governors from 11 states have issued executive orders relating to AVs.

In California, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) regulates the testing and public use of AVs. California has granted 65 companies (including Uber, Apple, Tesla, Lyft, and Waymo) permission to test AVs on public roads in the state.

Barriers to Commercializing Autonomous Vehicles

AV technology has encountered persistent safety barriers due to uncertainty and decision-making capabilities. Regarding uncertainty, the technologies used in the vehicles still face challenges with accurate object detection and categorization.

Technologies used in the vehicles still face challenges with accurate object detection and categorization.

For instance, a vehicle could have difficulties distinguishing between pedestrians and static objects, depending on what a pedestrian is or is not carrying. Decision-making capabilities are also still under development. An AV currently may not have the capacity to detect and act upon the subtleties in environmental changes that a human driver possesses. Another barrier that will likely impact AV adoption is the risk of cybersecurity breaches for vehicles linked to internet-connected computers.

Looking Forward

The commercial transportation sector continues to hold the most potential for autonomous vehicle technology promising quicker transportation times, improved supply chain efficiencies, and decreased operating costs.

At the national level, there is renewed support in favor of ensuring American leadership in developing and deploying autonomous vehicle technology. The National Science and Technology Council and the Department of Transportation recently issued a report outlining the current administration’s goals and strategies to ensure that the US attains and holds a leadership role in what is becoming a global race to develop autonomous vehicles.