Self-driving cars: who gets stuck with the highway bill?

May 16, 2017

Drive north on the 101 from Palo Alto toward the San Francisco airport, in a car equipped with the most sophisticated self-driving hardware available today, and two things are sure to happen. First, at least one other driver will look over in shock as the car pilots itself for long stretches at a time.  

Next, as the time-worn lane stripes fade, as the concrete gets very light in color, the car will fire off warning lights and sounds as it drifts into another car’s lane. It can’t read the road. It can’t yet truly drive itself.

Automakers have promised self-driving cars will arrive as soon as next year. They’re only telling half the story: their half.

The infrastructure needed to support completely self-driving cars won’t be ready any time soon. If and when it does happen, that infrastructure is at least decades away–and it will come with a multi-billion-dollar pricetag.

Drivers have proven they’ll pay for the car hardware required for a limited level of autonomous driving. But will voters foot the huge bill–not only to catch up on long-deferred maintenance, but also to build the new generation of roads that self-driving cars will require?

Waymo self-driving prototype

Waymo self-driving prototype

Enlarge Photo

What self-driving cars are

If you follow car news at all, you've heard plenty about electrification, connected cars, vehicle sharing, and self-driving vehicles from personal cars to semis. The four are on a collision course that could upend the auto industry and dramatically affect the way we get around in the near future.

If futurists are correct, gas-engine cars piloted by humans will go away, and autonomous vehicles will carry passengers on a revamped road system. By some estimates, up to 25 percent of all miles driven by 2030 could happen in autonomous, shared, electric-powered cars.

What will those vehicles be capable of doing? For starters, “self-driving cars” is the technically incorrect shorthand applied to a range of vehicle functions, all under the umbrella of autonomous driving.

Autonomous cars use suites of sensors and systems–cameras, lidar or radar sensors and ultrasonic sensors–to analyze and react to road conditions, to maintain lane control and speed control, and to shut the car down to avoid or prevent crashes.

Engineers describe autonomous or self-driving cars using five levels. Level 0 means no car intervention in the act of driving, while Level 1 means the car can intervene for safety, as many cars now do with forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking systems. The car senses an obstacle, and at lower speeds, can stop before a crash.

At Level 2, the vehicle can control speed and steering for several seconds before it calls for the driver to take the controls. Vehicles such as the Volvo XC90 and Mercedes E-Class are capable of this. At Level 3 the car can be in total control, but will require the driver to stay at attention and to take over in case of an emergency. For safety reasons, most automakers expect to skip this level.

At Level 4, the vehicle will be able to control itself, and will stop completely if its systems fail or cannot perform adequately on the road. Finally, at Level 5, the driver is factored out entirely; the car is built to drive itself under all conditions, and need not have a steering wheel or brake pedal.

That last leap is a huge one. While many automakers have promised Level 4 self-driving cars by 2021, it’s not clear if they’ll be sold to the public, or only used by car-sharing services in tightly controlled ways, in very limited regions and circumstances.

Of course, Tesla Motors is a standout. It hasn’t specifically promised Level 5 self-driving cars, but it says it will introduce an enhanced Autopilot system that will permit it to demonstrate a self-driving car run from Los Angeles to New York by the end of the year. Tesla’s Elon Musk says the trip will be made without any driver input.

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