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The Future Of Shared Autonomous Vehicles

“Autonomous cars could fix a lot of different problems associated with driving in cities, but there needs to be a way for them to work together.”

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor


Modern cities have a longstanding issue with private cars, both due to the pollution they cause and the congestion that clogs up the city’s roads.  Add in the highly valuable real estate that is taken up by parking, and there’s a strong argument for making cities less friendly for private vehicles, even in the post-covid world where people are likely to be nervous about flooding back into mass transit systems.

Private car usage varies from city to city, from roughly 30% of journeys in London to around 80% in Los Angeles.  In most cities, however, the volume undertaken in shared mobility solutions remains very low, and typically in low single figure percentages.  What role will shared autonomous vehicles play in the future?  The potential is huge, especially in a post-covid world where social distancing concerns will remain for some time.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge modelled the potential impact of such vehicles on congestion levels and found that autonomous vehicles could fix many of the poor driver behaviors that result in so much of the congestion we see on our roads today.

“Autonomous cars could fix a lot of different problems associated with driving in cities, but there needs to be a way for them to work together,” the authors say.  “If different automotive manufacturers are all developing their own autonomous cars with their own software, those cars all need to communicate with each other effectively.”

Greener motoring

Shared autonomous vehicles are also likely to provide a number of environmental benefits, but only provided the vehicles are run on green fuel.  Research from the University of Michigan found that efficiency savings of around 9% are possible over vehicles operating on our roads today, with autonomous vehicles running electric powertrains capable of achieving efficiency savings of 40% over traditional internal combustion powered vehicles.

A second study, from Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and UC Berkeley, found that grid requirements in a city such as New York could be reduced by up to 73%.  As with the Michigan-based team, the researchers suggest that electric-powered vehicles will deliver the strongest benefits.

“For a long time, personal transportation seemed like the hardest problem to solve,” they explain. “Now suddenly it seems like there’s an obvious path to achieving it, which is the electrification of vehicles coupled with changing the way we get around from private vehicle ownership to shared approaches. Shared approaches are starting to work in urban areas.”

Journey to market

The path to mass-market adoption is far from straightforward, however.  For instance, research published in Nature highlights some of the psychological hurdles people are likely to have to overcome before they fully accept autonomous transport.

The paper highlights not only the ethical concerns people have about the kind of decisions their vehicle might take, but they still remain to be convinced by the safety of the technology, especially with news stories continuing to emerge involving accidents.  A second study, published in Risk Analysis, suggests people need autonomous vehicles to be up to four to five times as safe as human-driven vehicles before they will feel happy getting into them.  Indeed, the study found that even benefits such as lower emissions were not enough to overcome these safety concerns.

This perhaps plays into ongoing discussions around the legal liabilities associated with autonomous vehicles.  Researchers from the University of Brighton propose three distinct scenarios for how liability concerns may unfold with regards to autonomous vehicles:

  1. Perpetrator via another – this is when an offence is committed by someone unable to decide for themselves, such as a mentally deficient individual or an animal.  The individual themselves is not normally liable, but any persons who instructed them can.  The dog owner for instance rather than the dog.  This has clear implications for those who design AI-based machines, as well as those who use them, with the AI itself largely regarded as an innocent party.
  2. Natural probable consequence – this is when the normal behavior of an AI system is misused by someone to perform a criminal act.  This would include the classic paperclip scenario popular among AI theorists, whereby the AI decides to perform criminal acts in the course of its duties because that’s the, unintentionally, best way to do so.  The question here revolves around whether the programmer can realistically expect such an outcome to occur.
  3. Direct liability – the final scenario would involve both an action and an intent, but even this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.  Whilst actions are easy to prove, intent is much harder.

Risk profiles

These issues are then further compounded by the kind of autonomous vehicle we may wish to ride in.  A team from the University of Michigan explores whether people will want our vehicle to have a ‘personality’.

Their research found that people felt safest when their vehicle exhibited traits such as conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness.  It’s a sign, the researchers believe, that we are likely to want vehicles that have similar characteristics to ourselves.

“The takeaway is that we want to design the autonomous vehicle to be agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable to increase perceived safety,” the researchers say.  “Imagine the moment you get into an autonomous ride sharing vehicle, it pings your cell phone to update its driving style, voice, and the way it interacts with you.”

All of which underlines some of the considerable legal, social, and ethical hurdles the technology still has to overcome if it’s to be a common presence on our city’s streets.

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