What is a driverless car?

Driverless cars are a transformative technology that could have important implications for society, national security, the economy, and the environment. On May 8, the Center for Technology Innovation and the U.S. Department of State hosted a panel of experts to discuss the potential for driverless cars domestically and abroad. The potential benefits of autonomous vehicles are exciting but innovators and government officials must first overcome several barriers to change.


Defining a driverless car

There is no generally accepted definition of a driverless car. The phrase connotes a car with total autonomy. Cars today already include automated technologies including anti-lock brakes, cruise control, lane assist, and active parking assist. There is no bright line for the number of automatic features a car must have before it may be described as “driverless.”

Changing workplace

Automation is transforming the way our economy works, for example ATMs and self-checkout lanes in the grocery store. In the future, computers will be able to do many of the things that only a human can do today. Driverless cars could displace parts of the labor force. For example, automated trucks could remove the need for human drivers in some sectors.

Cultural differences on data collection

Autonomous cars use a sophisticated set of sensors to collect and process data in order to make decisions. Data collection is controversial in the international community. European nations and the U.S. have different regulatory regimes governing consumer privacy. This could create a non-tariff barrier to the trade of automobiles.


Using computer systems connected to the Internet in driverless cars exposes them to hacks. It’s possible to create some safeguards against “car hacks.” For example, a car that collects a small amount of data by itself for operation and then deletes it after use will be more difficult to attack.


Liability for accidents involving a driverless car is also a serious issue. It’s unclear who is responsible if an autonomous car seriously injures another person. Even more complicated is if a driverless car is forced into a situation due to another driver’s error or bad weather and the computer  must choose between two different accidents. Programing in those situations is fraught with ethical and legal conundrums.

Benefits of automated vehicles

Reducing traffic fatalities

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to greatly reduce the number of deaths from car accidents. Automated vehicles use advanced sensors and computers that allow for rapid reaction time. As the number of automated vehicles increases, there will be greater precision on the road and fewer accidents due to human error.

Personal convenience

Many people would prefer a more relaxed environment as they are commuting to and from work. An automated vehicle could function as a mobile office during a long commute. There are even luxury car brands that are designing automated vehicles to serve as a mobile lounge for traveler comfort and privacy.

Fuel efficiency

The trucking industry consumes a very large amount gas in the United States. Automated vehicles can use fuel more efficiently by platooning, the adaptive cruise control function that allows trucks to stay a certain distance away from each other and travel at exactly the same speed. Manufacturers could also design electric or hydrogen powered trucks.


Automated cars have the potential to increase mobility and access to life-saving services. This technology could have revolutionary implications for disabled people who are unable to manage their own transportation. Automated cars could also be used to gain access to healthcare services without relying on family members or a car service. Driverless cars could also benefit people  in rural communities  who lack easy access to public transportation.

Policy Recommendations

International cooperation

Today’s cars have parts that are manufactured in different countries and sold across borders. Policy makers throughout the world  need to coordinate their efforts with other governments. Clashing IP, environmental, health, and safety regulations could stymie the potential benefits of automated vehicles.

Safety and testability

Every technical system has the potential to fail. Autonomous cars must be tested and certified on an international level. There is a need for harmonization in modeling, simulation testing, and system verification to ensure the safety of these vehicles across borders.

The discussion surrounding driverless cars involves a great deal of uncertainty. There are huge ethical decisions that must be made regarding these new technologies. It is the responsibility of policy makers to help decide these issues.