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Self-driving cars - a review

The dream and the reality of
self-driving cars
A brief review
Kjell Krona
A vision of the future, 65 years ago
JUNE 2021
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
Self-driving vehicles are, together with electric propulsion, one of the hottest topics in
the automotive industry today. Self-driving cars promises to reduce accidents and associated costs, and remove the need for human drivers in commuting and commercial
transports, from local deliveries to interurban and international transport. Such effects
might be transformative for the infrastructure and its environmental impact. However,
without due regard to safety and value-for-money, there is also considerable risk for
indivuals and increased costs for society due to side effects and wasted investments.
Travel by car without having to drive has been a dream for almost a century. In the
original vision, however, cars were meant to be guided by hidden tracks in the roadway, and traffic-controlled remotely, in similarity to trains, and with no real capacity for
self-driving in a meaningful sense. Gradually, as robotics advanced 1, the interest shifted towards cars with more autonomy, a development permitted by the rapid evolution
of computer systems, in particular microcomputers, from the early 1970’s 2 3.
A demonstration project in 1956 by the Nebraska Department of Roads, showing a console controlling a 400-feet stretch of highway with embedded guiding circuits.
The first substantial initiative was the EC project EUREKA/PROMETHEUS (1987-1995),
which demonstrated highway driving technology, among other results a drive (1995)
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
with minimal assistance between Munich and Copenhagen (2,000km). Similar results
were simultaneously demonstrated in US. Such results were regarded as a proof-ofconcept that autonomous vechicles would be possible, even though requiring a trunkful of computers at that time.
It is important to note the difference between autonomous driving and automated
driving (where a human need to monitor and take control when required). This definition is laid out in Regulation (EU)2019/2144 4, and further detailed in SAE J3016(2016) 5,
with Level 2-3 corresponding to automation and 4-5 to autonomy:
Of course, NO vechicles are completely autonomous; all require access to outside support from emergency and assistance services in case of accidents or breakdowns.
However, L4-L5 vehicles will need more support than human drivers in such cases, and
also when failing to handle some situation, mandating some central supervision. Since
any automated transport system strikes a balance between assisted human drivers,
self-driving capabilities of vehicles, and remote support systems, it makes sense to assess the spectrum of automated transport rather than “autonomous” L4-L5 cars only.
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
Current situation
20 years after the first demonstrations, cost reductions have enabled the commercial
introduction of various active driver-assist systems, featuring some capabilities necessary for self-driving, such as cruise control with speed adjustment, auto-breaking under
certain conditions, lane keeping assistance, and traffic-sign recognition including speed
signs. However, these should all be considered Level 2 (L2), meaning that they work more or less - in favourable conditions but need constant and active supervision. The
only company which today provides driverless taxi service (without safety driver) is
Waymo, and only in one suburb of Phoenix, USA6, with optimal conditions; so far, fully
autonomous services has not been extended to other areas in Phoenix or other cities7,
meaning that there is currently a lack of either reliability8 or profitabily9 (or both).
These problems are reflected by the recently shrinking optimism in the industry of
promptly achieving Level 4-5 autonomy 12; many startups have recently folded or been
absorbed, while self-driving divisions have been shrunk, shut down, or divested 13.
Possibilities and applications
Full self-driving (L4-L5), if safely achievable, would appear to bring many benefits; the
promise of reduction in accidents and the ability to work or relax while travelling by car
would be of great value to individuals; enterprises in the transport sector could lower
their costs and utilize their vehicles 24/7 when humans are not involved; commercial or
public travelling could become significantly cheaper; and the cost to society for accidents, in terms of emergency operations, healthcare and rehabilitation, insurance and
disability benefits, as well as loss of GDP, would be greatly reduced.
New services, such as auto-taxis and -shuttle buses, and carpools, ridesharing, and carsharing 14 using self-driving vehicles, could come into existence. Even conventional
mass transport, such as buses, trams, and light rail, could come to use self-driving vehicles; even though such would likely include remote surveillance, particularly at passenger stops, a considerable reduction of human “drivers” involved would result 15 16 17.
In the longer term, the cost-effectiveness of different modes of transport might shift
considerably if self-driving becomes widely employed, and paired with electric drive,
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
promises a new balance of safe and energy-effcient mobility. However, there are many
variables and unknowns, and different investigators have come to different conclusions
on the future of transport; an interesting review is found in Bösch (2018)18.
Problems and threats
There are several types of issue or problems to this vision, which, while shading into
each other, can be described as technical, sociological, economical, and ethical.
Technically, realizing fully autonomous (L4-L5) driving is proving more difficult than expected. Even the most advanced L2 systems in cars today are comparable to autopilots
in commercial aircraft: while able to follow a sequence of waypoints from A to B, they
need a human able to take control immediately in unfamiliar situations (automation
hands over) or if the automation misreads the situation (pilot/driver takes charge).
However, both the well-documented difficulties of keeping vigilance when supervising a
nominally well-behaved automated system19, and the seductive impression of autonomy which some falsely perceive in L2 systems, means that constant active monitoring
cannot be expected. It has long been known in ergonomics that people tend to trust
and rely excessively on automated systems if they initially appear to perform well (automation bias 20), and sometimes, paradoxically, will continue to rely on systems they
no longer trust even after failures have been observed 21.
Unfortunately, when suddenly trust into control, the time necessary to refocus and assess an unexpected situation (up to 30 s) may preclude appropriate action in time to
prevent an accident. Several unfortunate accidents with L2 systems have shown that
some users ignore warnings, and regard them as L4-L5, sometimes with lethal results.
When we additionally consider that such monitoring must not only include the external
traffic situation but also the possibility that the vehicle might misinterpret a situation
and attempt to take some inappropriate and dangerous action which must be immediately countermanded, we might question whether some L2 systems are maybe more
dangerous than unassisted driving22.
The current inability to handle many likely situations results partly from (over)reliance
on Deep Learning, using large amounts of data to construct behaviour (meaning that
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
infrequent situations are sparsely or not at all featured and therefore unrecognized,
being statistical outliers), as well as the “brittleness” of such systems23 24, where insignificant changes in input can cause large changes in output (a partly covered stop sign can
be interpreted as a speed sign, causing the vehicle to accelerate instead of stopping);
more generally, these systems have no actual “reasoning” capacity to help them assess
the “reasonableness” of their interpretations or of their intended actions.
Understanding whether safety is actually improved by automated (L2-L3) or autonomous ( L4-L5) system, is difficult; should we compare accidents of, say, new Teslas controlled by Autopilot (L2) under proper supervision, to the average car (including old and
unsafe vehicles and/or drivers) – or with similar new cars driven manually by mostly
well-educated, responsbile drivers? And if the latter, how to make a fair comparison if
Autopilot only works on “safe” highways, and not on congested city streets with a lot of
opportunities for accidents? Since Autopilot switches off in situations it cannot handle
(but might have contributed to), the result will anyway be biased.
Sociologically, how will people react react to autonomous vehicles? One the one hand,
to what extent will people trust automated or autonomous vehicles, and use them as
envisioned? We have already discussed the issue of over-reliance on automation, but
the converse reaction of distrust is also likely from some potential users, limiting the
attractiveness of various autonomous services.
On the other hand, how will fellow drivers react to sharing the road with autonomous
vehicles? There is already anecdotal evidence 27 that some will regard these vehicles as
“fair game” for various kinds of pranks or harassment, some of it potentially dangerous.
Such reactions might be excerberated by the propensity for current test vehicles to
stop or drive excessively slowly in some situations, making some drivers irritated or
even get into a road rage; but even with future improvements, autonomous cars are
bound to follow all rules of traffic precisely, which might infuriate some 28.
From an economic perspective, it is currently difficult to assess the potential of new
services using self-driving vehicles. One intensely promoted application is auto-taxis;
elimination of a human driver is said to reduce costs for taxi (and similar services) sufficiently to take over a large share of private travel. However, if only vehicle operating
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
costs are included, the overhead of remote support is ignored (for instance, for connecting passengers to drives, ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber may add 50100% on top of the drive renumeration). Human drivers also perform basic maintenance - removing passenger debris and collecting forgotten luggage, as well as minor
cleaning and accident assessment - all of which needs to be provided by other means
or not at all, meaning a less attractive service (which also applies to car-sharing and caras-a-service, which otherwise would gain from self-driving vehiclels). More generally,
whether these new services will become popular or not is extremely difficult to prognosticate, influenced by a large number of considerations29 30
From another perspective, successful self-driving will cause disruption in the employment market: commercial drivers (truck, van, taxi and couries services) constitute 2-3%
of the total labour market in EU 31, and drivers are generally older and less welleducated than average, likely causing a significant and costly unemployment and retraining problem if a large share of them become redundant; some might have to retire
early, with associated costs for individuals and society.
Finally, we need to consider the perspective of ethics. Ethics can be regarded as either
an issue of the potential ethical agency of autonomous vehicles, or as an issue of who
otherwise is responsible for any damages caused by such vehicles. I find the attempts
to assign responsibility to vehicles completely misguided – even though they appear to
fascinate philosphers32 and psychologists33 – and quite possibly an attempt to remove,
diminish or confuse the responsibility of other actors involved34. On the contrary, any
responsibility for adverse events, whether criminal or monetary, must be firmly anchored to those who have the most insight into the functioning of the vehicle; that is,
the manufacturers. No one else is able to either assess or influence the design choices
which might cause an accident or other adverse event, and no one else is able to profit
from reducing the level of actual safety. However, to ensure this will happen, suitabile
legislation clarififying the respsonsibiliteis must be enacted.
Impact on individuals
For many, self-driving cars would seem a desirable option; instead of concentrating on
the road and traffic, you could relax, work, chat with family or friends travelling with
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
you, or even sleep. For example, a long commuter ride could maybe be used for work,
meaning you could come in correspondingly later and/or leave earlier. This could also
make longer commutes acceptable, enablining living in less polluted and less expensive
areas. Such alternative uses of travelling time, however, presupposes that self-driving is
felt to be safer than a good driver in all likely conditions.
For people who today, by age or disability, are preclduded from driving, autonomous
vehicles could bring about a significant increase in personal mobility.
However, for those unemployed after being replaced by autonomouse vehicles, the
results could be disastrous, even if some support is provided; there is no guarantee
that all displaced drivers can be retrained and employed at similar wage levels, or at all.
Impacts on society
As further effects, autonomous vehicles, driving at optimal efficiency, particularly together with electric propulsion, could produce substantial benefits in transport energy
consumption and environmental load. Since autonomous vehicles likely will adhere to
speed limits, cars could be simpler and less expensive, placing reduced demands on
raw materials, and possibly have increased longevity; at the very least, with less accident attrition, the average lifetime of vehicle fleets will increase. However, as an example, a 15% reduction in production volume might mean a similar reduction in employment, corresponding to half a million jobs within EU35.
On the other hand, if autonomous cars become common, some fear that the number
and length of trips will increase, both absolutely, and relative to trips using public
transport (even such also using autonomous vehicles, including ride-sharing, which
could lower costs or increase the number of departures36). However, self-driving vehicles are only one part of this equation; as showed by the 2020-2021 pandemic, other
reasons can cause a shift, on the one hand, towards individual travel, and on the other
hand, a shift towards fewer trips, with more people working from home, occasionally or
constantly. From an environmental perspective, taking into account the ongoing shift
towards zero-emission, electric vehicles, the impact from longer but fewer trips might
as well be positive as negative; and from a congestion point of view, longer trips will not
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
necessarily increase congestion, while fewer trips will decrease the same. In the long
run, is it even desirable, and for whom, to prefer public travel as policy?
From a legislative point of view, the somewhat spotty record37 of automotive selfcertification, vehicle enterprises should arguably not be allowed to self-certify the safety of their autonomous systems, but instead certified according to detailed regulations,
similar to transport aircraft certification, involving deep insights by assigned authorities
into the design and implementation of safety-critical systems 38 39.
The possibility of self-driving vehicles gives rise to a multitude of questions which are
difficult to answer, and it is even more difficult to assess the overall outcome for the
future of transport. If the promise of less accidents and a broader availability of personal transport shall be achieved, without incurring undesirable side effects and costs,
then much more thought and research as well as a well-informed public debate and
legislation is necessary.
The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
End notes
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The dream and the reality of self-driving cars
Kjell Krona
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Kjell Krona
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It must be noted that air transport certification is no absolute guarantee for safety, as shown
by the recent catastrophic failures of the Boeing 737-Max, after which Boeing accepted a fine
of $245M, above the award of @2,3B in damages to victims, for having “deceived the FAA”.
However, in the absence of certification, such unfortunate events would likely be commonplace (as they were before stringent certification was established). See US Gov., “Boeing
Charged with 737 Max Fraud Conspiracy and Agrees to Pay over $2.5 Billion”; available online
at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/boeing-charged-737-max-fraud-conspiracy-and-agreespay-over-25-billion (accessed 2021-06-02); that the automotive industry is no better has
been demonstrated by the “Dieselgate” affair; for instance, see Amelang, Sören, Wehrman,
Benjamin, “"Dieselgate" - a timeline of the car emissions fraud scandal in Germany”, Clean
Energy Wire, May 25, 2020; available online at
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