Self-Driving Cars

Supported by cameras, light detection and ranging systems, radar, sensors, advanced GPS, and millions of miles of training data, self-driving technology will improve to create cars, trucks, and shuttles that safely and efficiently transport people, goods, and services.


How It's Developing

For most people, the vision for self-driving cars centers on their use as personal vehicles. While this vision may come to pass, many consumers’ first experience with self-driving technologies will likely happen through shared car services.

In May 2015, ride-haling service Uber announced plans for an Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, fueled by its acquisition of Otto, a startup focused on autonomous trucks – the service began piloting self-driving cars for invited Uber users in Pittsburgh in 2016. [1] Uber later expanded its self-driving service to Tempe, Arizona, but suspended the program after one of its autonomous vehicles was involved in a high-impact crash when another car failed to yield for the Uber car. [2] In 2018, an autonomous car operated by Uber struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe – the company suspended operations for nine months and returned with commitments to operate at drastically reduced speeds and in less challenging environments than before. [3]

In 2017, ride-hailing service Lyft began piloting self-driving cars in Boston (with self-driving firm nuTonomy) and San Francisco (with self-driving firm before launching a service in Las Vegas for attendees of the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – the company expanded that Las Vegas pilot in May 2018 with the addition of 30 self-driving cars available to members of the public who agree to participate in the self-driving technology. [4]

In November 2018, Google’s Waymo subsidiary announced plans to launch a commercial driverless car service, starting small with dozens or hundreds of authorized riders pulled from its Early Riders program in the suburbs around Phoenix. [5] The potential reach of Waymo’s service is evidenced by its purchase of thousands of Pacifica hybrid minivans from Fiat Chrysler and orders for more than 20,000 electric self-driving vehicles from Jaguar – Waymo estimates that the Jaguar fleet alone will be capable of doing a million trips each day in 2020. [6]

Still other, smaller providers are exploring shared uses for self-driving cars. The self-driving taxi fleet Voyage piloted a service that provided two self-driving Ford Fusions in a retirement community of 4,000 residents in California – the cars learned to navigate the 15 miles of roads within the gated community. [7] And in Michigan, students at the University of Michigan can cross campus in self-driving shuttles as part of the University’s MCity self-driving development hub, which includes a two-mile route between the University’s Lurie Engineering Center and its North Campus Research Complex. [8]

While many firms focus on transporting people, self-driving technology could become especially useful for the transport and delivery of goods and services.

In 2018, Uber and Waymo launched self-driving long-haul transportation services in Arizona and Atlanta, respectively. [9] Both services still rely on human drivers to serve in an advisory capacity or to complete the “last mile” driving once the trucks enter more complicated inner-city driving.

Within cities and communities, self-driving vehicles are increasingly being used to deliver goods directly to consumers. Grocery store chain Kroger has experimented with self-driving car partner Nuro to launch grocery delivery services using both self-driving Toyota Priuses with safety drivers on board and with Nuro's R1 vehicle, a smaller vehicle designed exclusively for the transportation of goods without space for a driver or passenger. [10] Retailer Walmart has engaged with several partners, including Ford and Udelv, to explore the delivery of groceries and other goods. [11] Walmart’s partnership with Udelv promised to leverage autonomous delivery trucks and vans to make deliveries to multiple customers in a single trip. [12] And, of course, Amazon has explored self-driving technology, tasking a team of employees to explore uses for autonomous vehicle technology to deliver packages more quickly, even if the company does not plan on building its own self-driving vehicles. [13] Automakers like Ford are using this focus on delivery as an opportunity to develop parallel business tracks for self-driving cars – one business track focused on vehicles owned by consumers and a second business-to-business track that improves delivery efficiency, testing fleets of self-driving cars as delivery vehicles for Domino's, Postmates, and Walmart. [14]

While self-driving technologies could enhance quality of life for some people and improve safety in communities, there are very real concerns for the effects the technology could have on jobs and the workforce. In 2018, advocacy group Securing America’s Future Energy commissioned a wide-ranging study to consider the economic and labor impacts of self-driving technologies. The study concluded that some of the most disruptive technologies, like self-driving trucks, would not arrive until the mid-2030s, providing workers with some time to train in new areas or adapt for new roles in the industry – and self-driving technologies could provide less expected economic benefits, like simplified commutes that might encourage workers to explore new opportunities in other sectors or communities. [15]

Even as industry leaders attract attention for announcements and new pilot programs, many artificial intelligence experts note that it may be years, or even decades, before self-driving systems can reliably avoid accidents. Self-driving systems require massive amounts of data to work properly, and while they may be able to identify familiar objects and follow rules, the vehicles could be challenged in more accident-prone scenarios where many variables contribute to safe performance. [16]


Why It Matters

Self-driving cars could solve one of the biggest problems in urban design – parking. If self-driving cars improve transportation efficiency to the point that residents choose not to own automobiles, the amounts of parking needed in cities and communities could drop significantly. [17] This could be an especially important change for libraries’ physical locations, where considerations for parking availability can challenge facilities planning, affect patrons’ visits, or even raise concerns for safety.

The design and function of self-driving cars’ interiors could radically change users’ experiences. Freed from the requirements of driving, passengers may shift their drive-time focus to entertainment, productivity, or even education. [18] Similarly, public and shared transportation services could become spaces for community dialog, programming, or other forms of engagement.

Libraries could become interested in self-driving technology as a means of improving materials delivery, outreach services, or transportation between locations.

Like other advances in artificial intelligence, self-driving technologies could have a significant impact on labor and the workforce. There is reasonable concern that this could be especially harmful to individuals who used ride-hailing and other on-demand services to supplement or as their only form of employment. Libraries may once again play a role in workforce training. 

If developed in a certain direction (self-driving shared shuttles) or for a certain benefit (ease of transportation), self-driving cars could help increase socialization in communities – allowing people to encounter each other in convenient and efficient shared shuttles or making it easier and more compelling to venture out of their homes into public spaces. But just as likely might be the further isolation of communities – residents becoming accustomed to private self-driving rides to and from their destinations or the convenience of cheap delivery directly to their homes.

Notes and Resources

[1] "Uber's Driverless Future," Kerry Flynn, Mashable, September 14, 2016, available from

[2] "Uber to Suspend Autonomous Tests After Arizona Accident," Mark Bergen and Erin Newcomer, Bloomberg, March 24, 2017, available from

[3] "Self-Driving Uber Car Kills Pedestrian in Arizona, Where Robots Roam," Daisuke Wakabayashi, The New York Times, March 19, 2018, available from


"Uber’s Driverless Cars Return to the Road After Fatal Crash," Kate Conger, The New York Times, December 20, 2018, available from

[4] “Lyft Teams Up with Another Self-Driving Car Partner to Bring Its First Autonomous Rides to Boston,” Brett Williams, Mashable, June 6, 2017, available from


“Lyft Is Launching a Fleet of Self-Driving Cars in San Francisco,” Alex Davies, Wired, September 7, 2017, available from


“Lyft Puts 30 Self-Driving Cars to Work in Las Vegas,” Mariella Moon, Engadget, May 4, 2018, available from

[5] “Waymo to Start First Driverless Car Service Next Month,” Tom Randall, Bloomberg, November 13, 2018, available from

[6] “Fiat Chrysler, Waymo Expand Deal for Self-Driving Public Ride-Hailing Service,” Nick Carey, Reuters, January 29, 2018, available from


“The Most Important Self-Driving Car Announcement Yet,” Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic, March 28, 2018, available from

[7] “Self-Driving Taxis Are Coming to Residential Neighborhoods,” Andrew J. Hawkins, The Verge, October 4, 2017, available from

[8] “Some College Students Will Get an Autonomous Ride to Class Next Year,” Brett Williams, Mashable, June 21, 2017, available from

[9] “Uber’s self-driving trucks can now be found on Arizona highways,” Phillip Tracy, The Daily Dot, March 6, 2018, available from


“Waymo to Start Rolling Out Self-Driving Truck Fleet in Atlanta,” Phillip Tracy, The Daily Dot, March 9, 2018, available from

[10] “Kroger Adds Driverless Vehicles to Its Grocery Delivery Fleet,” Mallory Locklear, Engadget, December 18, 2018, available from

[11] “Ford Partners with Walmart and Postmates to Test Autonomous Grocery Delivery,” Kristen Korosec, TechCrunch, November 14, 2018, available from


“Ford Teams with Domino's on Self-Driving Pizza Delivery Test,” Paul Lienert, Reuters, August 28, 2017, available from

[12] “Walmart Trials New Self-Driving Delivery Service in Arizona,” Timothy B. Lee, ArsTechnica, January 9, 2019, available from

[13] “Amazon Might Use Driverless Vehicles to Deliver Packages in the Future,” Valentina Palladino, ArsTechnica, April 25, 2017, available from

[14] “Ford Partners with Walmart and Postmates to Test Autonomous Grocery Delivery,” Kristen Korosec, TechCrunch, November 14, 2018, available from

[15] "Self-Driving Cars Likely Won’t Steal Your Job (Until 2040)," Aarian Marshall, Wired, June 13, 2018, available from

[16] "Self-Driving Cars Are Headed Toward an AI Roadblock," Russell Brandom, The Verge, July 13, 2018, available from

[17] “No Parking Here,” Clive Thompson, Mother Jones January / February 2016, available from

[18] "Envisioning the Car of the Future as a Living Room on Wheels," Eric A. Taub, The New York Times, June 15, 2017, available from