Expert View: Maximizing the Benefits of Self-Driving Vehicles

Self-driving vehicles have the potential to improve the safety, accessibility, and convenience of transportation, but they also may increase energy use, transportation-related pollution, and roadway congestion. Public policy must address the potential effects of this emerging technology on communities and the environment.

Editor’s note: There are lots of opinions and much speculation about what will happen with self-driving or autonomous vehicles — when it will happen, how it will happen, and what the end result will be. While time will tell, the Union of Concerned Scientists offers a researched view on what carmakers and consumers need to look out for in the self-driving future. Adapted here with their permission.

Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicle technology may be the most significant innovation in transportation since the mass introduction of automobiles in the early 20th century.

What self-driving cars mean for your future depends on policy not just tech, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Photo credit: Ricardo Bresciani/Pexels

Whether the widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles results in positive outcomes in the years ahead will depend largely on how public policy guides the introduction of this emerging technology today.

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The potential benefits include safer roads, more affordable transportation, improved access to jobs, and a cleaner, healthier environment. Without well-crafted policy, though, self-driving vehicles could increase vehicle miles traveled and global warming emissions, worsen congestion, exacerbate air pollution, and put millions of Americans out of work.

UCS has outlined a set of principles that policymakers, businesses, and other stakeholders can follow to shape the introduction of self-driving vehicles in ways that reduce oil consumption and global warming emissions, protect public health,and enhance mobility for all.

  1. Make Transportation Safer for Everyone, Not Just Motorists

While self-driving vehicles have the potential to reduce vehicle-related fatalities,this is not a guaranteed outcome. Vehicle computer systems must be secure from hacking, and rigorous testing and regulatory oversight of vehicle programming are essential to ensure that self-driving vehicles protect both their occupants and those outside the vehicle.

Photo credit: Abby Chung/Pexels

Therefore, public policy related to self-driving vehicles must improve safety for all Americans, whether they are driving, walking, or biking.

  1. Cut Transportation-Related Pollution to the Greatest Possible Extent

Transportation is the largest source of global warming emissions in the United States. To help the nation avoid the worst consequences of climate change, self-driving vehicles must accelerate the reduction of emissions from this sector. Self-driving vehicles may make driving more convenient for some Americans and increase the amount of miles people travel—consequently increasing vehicle-related pollution.

To avoid this outcome and instead reduce transportation-related emissions, policy must ensure the pairing of self-driving technology with vehicles that have a low carbon footprint, such as plug-in electric vehicles and fuel-efficient hybrid gasoline vehicles. In addition, policy must give ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, which are likely to employ self-driving cars, strong incentives to operate trips that are shared among the maximum number of passengers. Similarly, policy should discourage self-driving cars from operating with no occupants.

  1. Integrate Self-Driving Vehicles with Mass Transit to Reduce Congestion

Continued investment in mass transit is vital to efficient transportation networks, especially in congested urban areas. Taxis, ride-hailing services, private bus lines, and public transit systems may use self-driving technology to increase transportation choices, improve service, and reduce the cost of mobility.

Photo credit: Austin Distel/Pexels

Integration of private transportation services with high-capacity mass transit systems can make the entire transportation network more effective and efficient. By increasing access to high-capacity transportation modes like subways and bus rapid–transit systems new mobility services such as self-driving vehicles can alleviate congestion, improve air quality, and save people time.

  1. Improve Access to Transportation on an Equitable Basis

Across the United States, transportation systems rely heavily on private vehicles, and often fail to serve all communities equally, with disadvantages arising based on income, age, race, disability, and geography. Self-driving technology can be deployed in ways that improve access to transportation, with special consideration for disadvantaged populations. But self-driving technology may also be used to justify reduced public support for transportation services. Policy must ensure that the adoption of self-driving vehicles enhances equitable access to mobility for all populations, rather than justify reduced public support for transportation services.

  1. Support a Just Transition for Displaced Workers

Self-driving technology will create jobs for some, but it will change or reduce employment opportunities for others, especially in the trucking, delivery, and taxi industries. Before self-driving vehicles comprise a significant share of the markets for passenger cars and heavy-duty trucks, policy must recognize the economic impact of this technology, and must support career pathways and transitions for the Americans who will be affected by automated driving technology.

In addition, jobs created in the self-driving vehicle industry should be accessible to all, with a focus on increasing career opportunities for populations historically underrepresented in transportation and technology industries.

  1. Establish a Framework for Sharing Data Openly While Ensuring Data Security

Whether self-driving vehicles improve public health, decrease traffic congestion, and reduce climate change will depend on informed, science-based policy. This will require a robust research agenda and accessible data on the performance and operation of self-driving vehicles. We cannot rely on private companies to provide such data voluntarily. Instead, policymakers should seek to promote the identification of ways that self-driving technology can improve safety, reduce pollution, and serve all Americans. Policy must facilitate open data-sharing, while ensuring that appropriate privacy protections are in place.

  1. Foster Livable Cities and Improve the Use of Urban Infrastructure

Self-driving vehicles could increase the use of personal vehicles, exacerbating sprawl, congestion, and pollution. Alternatively, the use of self-driving vehicles predominately for shared rides could reduce the need for parking and expansion of roads, creating the potential to repurpose public space for uses such as businesses, green space, and walking and bicycling infrastructure. Policy must ensure that any repurposing of public roads and spaces place a high priority on the needs of the whole community, rather than focus narrowly on serving only vehicles, whether self-driving or not.


Self-driving vehicles could change transportation in the United States dramatically. Whether the outcomes are positive or negative will depend on how policy frameworks guide the introduction of this rapidly evolving technology.

Photo credit: Alessio Lin/Unsplash

To assist in the creation of informed policy, UCS developed these principles to highlight the important ramifications of self-driving vehicles that must be considered in the policymaking process. UCS is committed to partnering with stakeholders to ensure that self-driving vehicles create a better future for transportation and our communities.

For more information, please visit the UCS website at

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