Automakers and tech companies are rapidly advancing the existing levels of autonomy as well as planning for the eventual fully-automated car. With the adoption of this technology on the not-so-distant horizon, it is important to understand the technology associated with (fully) automated vehicles.


  • Driverless, “Autonomous,” and Connected Technology
  • Expected Timeline




Automated vehicles are coming — probably sooner than you think. But when will we get there, and how will we get there? Here is the evolutionary path to fully automated vehicles, where today’s vehicles get automated driving features bit by bit.


The timeline for the introduction, adoption, and widespread use of fully-automated vehicles (AVs) is still largely unknown due to public opinion, policy boundaries, and current technological development. Below are some prevailing predictions for long-term adoption of self-driving vehicles.

extended timeline
Source: mojomotors infographic, 2014More recent AV deployment time line is the graph below:

Source: twitter


With the recent release of Google’s first self-driving car and Tesla’s autopilot software, other automakers are eager to join the AV market.

  • “General Motors plans to mass-produce self-driving cars that lack traditional controls like steering wheels and pedals by 2019,” (Hawkins, 2018).
  • Honda intends to reach level 3 autonomy by 2020 and level 4 by 2025 (Byford, 2017).
  • BMW is slated to release the iNEXT in 2021, which will have level 5 autonomy capabilities (Boeriu, 2017).
  • Other projections can be found here (Fagella, 2017).

The Ford Motor company plan to have AVs ready for market in 2021, when their level 4 AVs could operate without a steering wheel or brake pedals. In the past two decades, they designed and tested the driver-assist technology and automated driving technology to improve safety and reliability, so as to provide valuable customers’ experience. The company is working on an on-demand delivery platform in Miami and Miami beach with the participation of 70 local businesses and using Ford Fusion Hybrid sedans fleet tested on public roads in Miami, Pittsburgh, and Dearborn. In the future, they would also test AVs for serving police and heavy-duty service fleets, as well as testing hybrid-electric technology to AVs (Ford Motor Company, 2018).


In recent years, there have been major strides in the technology developments toward autonomy. Dr. Sven Beiker from Samsung summarized the technologies that have been achieved so far.

Source: Beiker, 2018

Based on a study conducted by the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin from 2015-2016, the forecast for technology development leading to self-driving cars is summarized below.

Technology Development Timeline.png
Source: Kockelman et al., 2016, pg. 22


Each US State is responsible for its own AV driving legislation. Nevada was the first state to authorize the operation of AVs in 2011. Since then, 21 other states have passed legislation related to AVs. In 2017, 33 states had either passed legislation, issued executive orders, or announced initiatives to accommodate AVs on public roads. California is undoubtedly the top-ranked state in openness and preparedness for AVs. Its AV testing regulations were introduced in September 2014 and required a driver be in the vehicle, ready to assume control. Recently, California took a step forward by allowing AVs with no driver to operate on its public roads (Peng, 2018).

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL, 2018) has a new AV legislative database, providing up-to-date, real-time information about state AV legislation that has been introduced in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.


A large hurdle that developers of AVs will have to overcome is getting drivers as well as the riders on board with the idea of an AV. This must be done by convincing people that AVs are safer than conventional vehicles and that they can be trusted. The level of public acceptance for the technology will largely determine the adoption rate of AVs, despite the rate at which the actual technology is developed. That is, even if automakers put vehicles into the market, AVs will not become widespread unless the general population trusts the technology.

According to recent surveys, Americans are still hesitant to accept the technology as a norm. Through survey data about Americans’ willingness to pay for the different levels of automation as well as simulations based on various price reductions, Prateek Bansal finds that “without a rise in people’s Willingness to pay (WTP), or policies that promote technologies, or rapid reductions in technology costs, it is unlikely that the U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet’s technology mix will be anywhere near homogeneous by the year 2045,” (Bansal and Kockelman, 2017). This indicates a need to further educate the general public about the potential benefits that AVs could bring.

Through another simulation calibrated by the results of a survey of Americans, Neil Quarles, an active transportation and street design graduate engineer from the Transportation Department of City of Austin, finds that: “the availability of an option to retain human-driving capabilities in AVs has a noticeable effect on their level of adoption and their share of total VMT, due to the higher WTP that exists for AVs if they include that human-driven option,” (Quarles and Kockelman, 2018). This indicates that people are willing to accept self-driving cars for the convenience, but they are not willing to completely give up their independence when it comes to owning and driving their own vehicles. Policy-makers will then need to determine whether the advantages of accelerated adoption of AVs, given the presence of the human-driving feature, outweighs the safety disadvantages associated with allowing people to continue driving.

According to Dr. Sven Beiker from Samsung, Level 3 automation had a “soft launch” in 2017 with the release of the Audi A8 and Tesla Autopilot and followed a “convenience” curve. Based on the below image, Level 4 automation starts in autonomous ride-sharing around 2020 but has relatively slow market adoption initially. Level 5 not expected before 2035, but upon implementation, very fast market adoption is expected.

Source: Beiker, 2018





Transportation has been evolving at impressive speeds and will continue to develop as we move toward fully-automated vehicles (AVs). Before the fully-automated technology is in place, we will see varying levels of autonomy and connectivity.


The following video from the Eno Center for Transportation defines some of the main technology types associated with the future of transportation.

AVs use sensors and systems to understand and navigate their environment with little to no human assistance.

This autonomy varies based on the level of human assistance. The Society of Automotive Engineers defines the five levels of autonomy as follows:

Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 4.15.59 PM.png
Source:, 2017

Connected and (fully) automated vehicles (CAVs) have the capability of connecting with the outside environment including infrastructure and other vehicles. There are five main types of connectivity:

To read more about these technologies, see, 2018.

Chapter 2 of An Assessment of AVs: Traffic Impacts and Infrastructure Needs (Kockelman et al., 2017) and chapter 2 of Transportation Planning Implications of Connected and Automated Vehicles on Texas Highways (Williams et al, 2017) both define the types of connectivity and the levels of autonomy further.

Throughout this website, highly and fully automated vehicles (Level 4 and 5) are referred as AVs, in which drivers have the option to control the vehicle or not. For discussions under impacts, such as benefits and challenges, in which Level 3 automation or lower requires the driver to be able to take control at all times, Level 3 automated vehicles under these circumstances are not ready to bring the discussed benefits (provided by Level 4 or 5) and are facing more difficult challenges.


These technologies are ultimately being developed to address a few main problems that we encounter in today’s world of transportation.


User Conveniences: AVs offer many conveniences to its users such as mobility for those who cannot drive on their own, the ability to focus on other tasks while en route, reduced stress associated with driving, a lower cost of deliveries, and the ability to select the appropriate vehicle for the task.

Safety: Currently, human error is the leading cause in the vast majority of crashes. According to data gathered by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 2016:

The above statistics pertain to U.S. crashes that occurred during the year of 2016 Source: NHTSA, 2016

Through automation, AVs do not have the same human imperfections that tend to lead to crashes. They can be programmed to avoid breaking laws, and they do not get distracted or fatigued. According to NHTSA’s 2015 Crash Stats, driver error is believed to be the main reason behind over 90% of all crashes (NHTSA, 2015). AVs have the potential to eliminate all of the crashes attributed to human decision-making.

Land Use: A large proportion of the land in cities is used for parking. Through the use of ride-sharing services, AVs can drastically reduce the need for parking. This would leave space for more productive land use measures.

Transit: AV technology opens the door to many possibilities in the realm of public transit. Eliminating the driver allows for much more flexibility and efficiency in existing forms of transit like ride-sharing services and buses. A more efficient system can lower usage rates and thus encourage the use of public transit, decreasing roadway congestion.

Capacity: gaps.pngCurrently, significant roadway sections are underutilized because of the required gaps between cars. These gaps, both headways and space between lanes, could be reduced as vehicles become more widely automated and connected to the outside world. One assessment conducted at the University of South Florida indicates that once we reach the height of automation, maximum lane capacity can increase by as much as 80% (Pinjari et al., 2013, pg. 4). Though this may take many decades, automated vehicles will likely reduce congestion by simply preventing crashes that tend to cause surrounding drivers to be delayed.

Greenhouse Gas Reduction: According to the EPA, transportation accounted for 27% of greenhouse gas production in the US in 2015 (EPA, 2017). Through the use of shared electric AVs and increasing use of automated public transit, Greenblatt and Saxena find that AVs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 94% as compared to conventional vehicles (Greenblatt and Saxena, 2015). Concurrent technology, such as brake smoothing will also lead to a reduction in vehicle emissions by limiting fuel consumption.

See more implications of AVs from a leading expert in active transportation planning, Ryan Snyder, who is the principal of Transpo Group and teaching transportation planning at the UCLA Urban Planning Department (Ryan Snyder, 2016).