Autonomous Vehicle Developers Prepare for a Long Road to Autonomy 


Across the world, autonomous vehicles are revving up, but the journey to full autonomy is likely to be long. According to current estimates, these vehicles will need to undergo at least 11 billion miles of on-the-road training before they can match the capabilities of human drivers. Not only will autonomous vehicle technology (AV) development take time, it will also be expensive. 

Some experts think simulation technology can help reduce the need for on-the-road training. Through artificial intelligence (AI) generated simulations, autonomous systems can safely prepare for avoiding accidents. These manufactured scenarios will help provide the necessary exposure to both common and uncommon real world driving conditions. 

In the U.S., the technology is starting to speed up. Steering the way is Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet. In 2019, Waymo journeyed 20 million miles—a substantial increase compared  to the 1.2 million miles it traveled the year before. In China, AV developers have tracked the second-largest number of miles. According to Jerry Quandt, executive director of the Illinois Autonomous Vehicle Association, there are even cities in China where 20% of the vehicles are autonomous. 

Governments Are Slow to Get in the Passenger Seat

As AV developers work out the kinks, governments must weigh the benefits of allowing companies to test the relatively new technology against the potential risks posed to passenger and pedestrian safety.

In the U.S., lawmakers have been particularly divided over the future of autonomous vehicles. After the U.S. House Of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE ACT in 2017 aimed at speeding up AV development in the country—a similar bill, AV START, stalled in the Senate the following year. In February, during a recent regulation hearing, members of the U.S. Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce continued debating many of the same issues as in earlier hearings.

Meanwhile, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seems to have taken a more optimistic approach. In February, it gave a robotics company, Nuro, temporary permission to run slow-moving AV delivery vehicles in Detroit. This marks the first time the organization granted approval for a company to deploy a vehicle that does not meet the federal government’s current standards around safety. Although these battery-powered vehicles were required to drive under 25 miles (40km) per hour, they didn’t have steering wheels, brake pedals or human backup drivers.

Given the various roadblocks, the real question for most experts is not a matter of “if” autonomous vehicles will become a reality, but “when.”

When Will AV Technology Take Off?

Only around 1% of vehicles sold today include some level of autonomous capability. In the next five years, 60% of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) recently surveyed by the Original Equipment Suppliers Association (OESA) said they plan to provide level 4 autonomous vehicles, according to Automotive World. These OEMs consist of top U.S.-based manufacturers and U.S. divisions headquartered outside the country. China has pushed its target for mass autonomous vehicle production to 2025, which will include some “conditional” autonomy.

Meanwhile, slow-moving commercial autonomous vehicles and robo-taxis could be transporting passengers as early as 2022, according to predictions from McKinsey Center for Future Mobility.

One area where these slow-movers may make a quick impact on the road to autonomy is in American construction yards, where about 50,000 diesel-spewing tractors currently roam. For example, the tech company Outrider plans to roll out its electric self-driving tractor to interested buyers. Potential customers already include five Fortune 200 companies.

Maturing AV technology is also being tested in the form of shuttle services in various cities.

General Motors has unleashed a fleet of electric Cruise shuttles in San Francisco that operate as a rideshare service for the company’s workforce.

In downtown Detroit, a self-driving shuttle service owned by May Mobility Inc. is starting to speed up. In Providence, Rhode Island, where the company also operates a shuttle service, the service has generated an estimated $800,000 USD.

Industry hopefuls take this as a sign that autonomous vehicle services have the potential to be self-sufficient—both on the road and in the marketplace.

“Our progress is that we’ve delivered 200,000 revenue-generating rides,” May founder and Chief Executive Officer Edwin Olson told the LA Times. “Some companies have the bankroll to be in R&D mode, but a few of us are working toward sustainable operations.”

Learn More About Autonomous Vehicle Technology

Where are you on the road to autonomy? Prepare your organization for the latest developments in autonomous vehicle technology with training in foundational and practical applications of autonomous, connected, and intelligent vehicle technologies. Developed by leading experts in the field—including Steve Vozar, CTO and co-founder of May Mobility—the IEEE Guide to Autonomous Vehicle Technology is a seven-course training program offered online.

Connect with an IEEE Content Specialist today to learn more about purchasing the program for your organization.

Interested in purchasing the program just for yourself? Access it through the IEEE Learning Network.


McKinsey & Company. (25 February 2020). Winning the race for talent: A road map for the automotive industry. Automotive World.

Shen, Jill. (24 February 2020). China delays self-driving car deployment goal to 2025. technode.

Knight, Renee. (20 February 2020). Cruise Origin All-Electric Autonomous Vehicle Set to Change Transportation. inside unmanned systems.

Rubino, Joe. (19 February 2020). Simulation: Preparing Autonomous Vehicles For The Road. Denver Post.

Piper, Kelsey. (14 February 2020). It’s 2020. Where are our self-driving cars? Vox.

Shepardson, David. (12 February 2020). Lawmakers Urged to Help U.S. Keep Up with China on Autonomous Vehicles. Insurance Journal.

Hawkins, Andrew J. (11 February 2020). We still can’t agree how to regulate self-driving cars. The Verge.

Krishna, Tom. (6 February 2020). U.S. lets autonomous vehicles bypass human-driver safety rules. Associated Press.

McMahon, Jeff. (27 January 2020). The 4 Reasons Autonomous Vehicles Seem Stalled In The U.S. Forbes.

Laine, Heikki. (22 January 2020). Simulation: Preparing Autonomous Vehicles For The Road. Forbes.

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