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Self Driving Vehicles: An Overview

Guest Blogger: Marshall Contino, Director of the Center for Vehicle Safety, Washington, DC. This article provides an overview of the benefits, challenges, and projected timeline for Self-Driving Vehicles (SDV) use on U.S. roadways.

Autonomous Buses…  Robot Cars….  Highly Automated Vehicles…

People have assigned various names to the next generation of automobiles that will be used to fulfill our transportation and mobility needs.  The term Self-Driving Vehicles, or SDVs, is one of the most easily understood names to use for this new form of vehicle.  Specifically, SDVs have the ability to safely navigate roadways in various types of weather conditions and can transport passengers without the need for a human driver.  SDVs reliably drive via seamless operation of a vehicle’s physical (i.e., hardware), and electronic (i.e., software), systems.  Visually, SDVs typically appear to contain the standard equipment that drivers and passengers have become accustomed to seeing and using in present day vehicles. These equipment parts and systems include steering, suspension, brakes, engine, and transmission.

On SDVs, newly advanced and innovative electronic systems are added that enable the vehicle to drive by itself.  These new systems help the vehicle function across three primary safe transportation areas:

  • Perception: Situational awareness to identify transportation signage, roadways, and objects.
  • Localization: Vehicle orientation and mapping (e.g., altitude, direction, position, velocity).
  • Communication: Exchange of information with other infrastructure, vehicles, or people.

Figure 1. Primary SDV Systems. Source:

These electronic systems work together with additional vehicle equipment that generally includes multiple cameras, radars, lasers, ultrasonic, satellite communication, and global positioning components (see Figure 1, Primary SDV Systems).

This combination of hardware and software systems allows the SDV to obtain a real-time 360-degree view of the roadway far ahead, to each side, and behind the vehicle. Through millions of miles of driving research and data analysis, SDVs have been programmed and taught to perceive and perform all of the driving functions that human drivers now perform.  An SDV’s driving abilities include, but are not limited to: recognition of roadway signage, perception of pedestrians and obstructions, understanding of state-by-state driving laws, and real-time navigation changes to correctly position the vehicle in a lane at posted speed limits.

Benefits of SDVs

Transportation stakeholders across both the public and private sectors foresee multiple benefits of SDVs.  These benefits include, but are not limited to:  increased mobility, fewer crashes, decreased fatalities and increased traffic flow efficiencies.

For older adults, senior communities, individuals with disabilities, and healthcare providers, SDVs present multiple unique benefits.  As U.S. roadways have become significantly riskier to drive, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that vehicle crashes are now the leading cause of injury-related deaths for older adults (ages 65-74).1 SDVs can help prevent vehicle crashes, can reduce the severity of a crash injury to an older adult, and can reduce the total number of older adults who are killed annually in vehicle accidents.  As transportation safety research has documented that 9 of every 10 traffic crashes are the result of human error, SDVs will operate more safely than present-day drivers.  SDV use can thus significantly reduce the total number of elders involved in crashes, and reduce the number injured or killed in vehicles.

SDVs also will have the benefits of providing increased mobility and independence for persons with disabilities and older adults.  SDVs can be summoned by older adults,  persons with disabilities, or caregivers to provide reliable curb-to-curb service for both one-way or round-trip transportation needs.

SDV Market Testing

SDVs have been manufactured, tested, and used in multiple locations for many years by traditional and newly emerging mass market vehicle manufacturers.  During 2016, the federal government issued policy regarding SDVs, and individual states are enacting legislation governing the rules for SDV use on public roads. 2  Large for-profit vehicle manufacturers are highly interested in providing SDVs to new customers and businesses.  These companies include traditional domestic and international vehicle manufacturers (e.g., BMW, General Motors, Ford, Hyundai, Volvo), along with newly emerging vehicle manufacturers and SDV technology companies (e.g., Apple, Tesla, Uber, Waymo).  Additional companies have designed specific SDV shuttles to be used by older individuals and persons with disabilities (e.g., Easy Mile, Local Motors, Navya).  Certain shuttles are being designed to fully comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act compliance requirements (e.g., handrails, wheel chair ramps, lifts), and the manufacturers are also conducting advanced research and development to integrate new healthcare sensors. These sensors will have the ability to monitor a passenger’s heart-rate and blood pressure and have the ability to call for emergency response personnel if a passenger were to become ill or incapacitated.

Conclusions and Final Thoughts

We have witnessed the steady integration of advanced safety systems into current vehicles.  These safety features include air bags, lane change assist, rear-view cameras, and three-point seat belts that have saved lives and made vehicle transportation safer.  As documented in this blog, SDVs present a new and exciting level of personal and community-based safe transportation options. Broader understanding and wider use of SDVs has the potential to provide greater independence, mobility, and safety to older adults and persons with disabilities.

If you have questions regarding this article or Self-Driving Vehicles, please contact Marshall Contino (202-422-8387), Director of the Center for Vehicle Safety.


  1. NHTSA, Clinician’s Guide to Assessing and Counseling Older Drivers, 3rd Edition,
  2. S. Department of Transportation Federal Automated Vehicles Policy – September 2016,


About the Author:

Marshall Contino is the Director of the Center for Vehicle Safety in Washington DC.  He has more than 20 years of expertise in Transportation and Worker Safety, and his Center works collaboratively with Federal and commercial stakeholders to provide leading edge transportation solutions to reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities.  He received Executive Education in Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School, a Masters from Indiana University in HazMat Management, and a Bachelors from UNC in Energy & Waste Management


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There needs to be a standardized “on the road” driving test for these vehicles before they’re allowed on public roads. We have this requirement for human drivers, why not autonomous vehicles?
Also, the legal issues associated with responsibility for accidents involving self driving vehicles need to be addressed. What entity is responsible for a fatality involving such vehicles?