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Semi-Autonomous Motor Vehicles: What Are the Implications for Work-related Road Safety?

Categories: Motor Vehicle Safety

Vehicles communicating with each other and with the road infrastructure. Graphic courtesy of University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center.

Motor vehicles that are semi-autonomous – in other words, those that can operate for extended periods with little human input – are no longer just a product of science fiction. Semi-autonomous vehicles (Level 3 automation as defined below) are expected to reach the market within five years, and employers that buy or lease vehicles will need to consider the effects of this major technological change on their transportation policies and operations.

Defining the issue: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has defined five different levels of vehicle automation ranging from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 4 (fully automated).  These are defined as follows:

  • Level 0 is No Automation.
  • Level 1 automation is Function-Specific Automation such as cruise control and automatic braking or lane-keeping. These features are widely available in vehicles on the market today.  
  • Level 2 automation is Combined Function Automation, which means that at least two primary control functions are designed to work together, for example, adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering. The driver cedes active primary control in certain limited driving situations, but is still responsible for monitoring the roadway and safe operation and is expected to be available for control at all times and on short notice.
  • Level 3 automation is Limited Self-Driving Automation. Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions. In these situations, the driver relies heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes that require a transition back to driver control.
  • Level 4 automation is Full Self-Driving Automation, which means the vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. The only human input at this level is to provide the destination for the vehicle and the vehicle does the rest – the system is fully responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle.[1]

Potential benefits for employers

  • Crash reduction: For many employers, motor vehicle crashes are a significant source of injury, lost work time, asset damage, and liability. By reducing the potential for human error, the major promixate cause of crashes, automated vehicles are expected to lead to substantial improvements in safety for all road users. 
  • Improved efficiency and productivity: Once they become a large enough share of the overall vehicle fleet, semi-autonomous vehicles may eventually reduce congestion and increase highway capacity because the system will be able to safely accommodate shorter following distances. Goods and services can be delivered more quickly and efficiently.
  • Reduced fuel consumption: Semi-autonomous vehicles will be more fuel-efficient because they can accelerate and decelerate more efficiently than a human driver, and because travel time and idling time will be less. In addition to the obvious benefits to operational costs, reductions in fuel use and carbon monoxide emissions will contribute to environmental or sustainability goals.

Policy implications for employers

Semi-autonomous vehicles (Level 3 automation) are expected to lead to improved safety, efficiency, and fuel consumption. However, with this revolutionary new technology come policy issues that employers will need to consider. Here are some examples:

  • Driver training and licensing: Drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles will need to learn about the capabilities and limitations of these vehicles. It remains to be seen whether states will require special tests or certifications to operate these vehicles, similar to a motorcycle endorsement on a driver’s license, or whether it will be left to consumers to educate themselves. In any event, employers who furnish highly-automated vehicles to workers for business or personal use may consider whether they should provide additional training.
  • Distracted driving: Drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles will be able to cede control of the vehicle for extended periods of time. This raises the possibility that the vehicle can be transformed into a legitimate workplace during those times, with the worker engaged in business meetings or interacting with various types of technology. Employers will need to consider these new possibilities in light of their current policies related to distracted driving.
  • Liability: The availability of highly-automated vehicles raises a number of questions about liability. If a semi-autonomous vehicle is under the full control of automated functions at the time of a crash, who is responsible, the manufacturer, the driver, or the driver’s employer? How will the courts determine who is liable, and how will insurers conceptualize fault? Until highly-automated vehicles become more widely available and legal precedents are established, it is difficult to predict how this will play out.

Questions for our readers: The introduction of semi-autonomous vehicles is expected to result in substantial safety and economic benefits throughout the transportation system. We at the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety  want to develop research projects and resources that address the risks and opportunities posed by the introduction of these new technologies in the workplace.  We’d like to start a conversation about the implications of semi-autonomous vehicles for work-related road safety and motor vehicle fleet operations:

  • Are employers planning to become early adopters of semi-automated vehicles as these become available?
  • Are they thinking about how the sweeping changes that are expected to accompany the introduction of these vehicles will affect their current fleet safety management policies?
  • We’ve identified some potential safety and policy issues here. What other issues should we consider?
  • Finally, what kinds of research might NIOSH and our partners undertake to assess the impact of increasingly autonomous vehicles on road safety in the workplace and fleet operations?

We welcome readers’ responses to these questions and any other comments on this topic.

Stephanie Pratt, PhD and Kwame Boafo, MPH

Dr. Pratt is Coordinator of the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety, and is based in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research.

Mr. Boafo is an Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) Fellow based in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research.


[1] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) [2013]. Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles. Washington, DC: NHTSA.

Public Comments

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  1. April 22, 2014 at 9:25 am ET  -   MOUNTAIN

    This will be great in reducing death on the road.Hope this technology can save millions of lives globaly

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT April 24, 2014 at 2:08 pm ET  -   Stephanie Pratt and Kwame Boafo

      We agree that there is great potential for saving lives globally, considering the fact that motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death. However, there may be some challenges for developing nations where they face issues with inadequate road infrastructure. Autonomous vehicles are designed to identify their environments and make safety critical decisions; therefore, it may be difficult for these motor vehicles to perform well in countries with poor road networks, especially countries where GPS navigation systems don’t even work. In these locations, it may be preferable to begin with a hybrid of automation and manual control in these motor vehicles, where the driver will have the option to completely switch to full manual control. Another thing to consider is that in countries where pedestrians and other vulnerable road users aren’t well-separated from motor vehicle traffic, vehicle automation systems will have to be very effective in detecting pedestrians. If these challenges can be overcome, it’s likely that autonomous vehicles can be beneficial to road safety in developing nations as well as highly industrialized countries.

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  2. April 22, 2014 at 9:51 am ET  -   Kerl Tsahey

    In my opinion, the main concerns will be the reliability of the safety features in these vehicles over time, have we had enough reliability tests to determine the availability of all these features over time. How expensive will the cost of maintaining and updating the software that will invariably be included in these cars? How are the Insurance companies buying into it? Will it cost more or less? Over time what happens to an antique car of this kind?

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  3. April 22, 2014 at 10:33 am ET  -   Kwame Poku

    Level 4 automation is the true game changer. Law enforcement on driving will have to be developed to cater to the new terrain. Drunk driving will be a thing of the past. Bars and Restaurants will embrace it. The older population will not be constrained by declining mobility. It is truly a Game changer.
    The big question is how does it get applied to existing technology. Will it be an add-on or a phase-in. As Kerl indicated we have a love for antique vehicles which are very reliable.

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT April 23, 2014 at 3:08 pm ET  -   Stephanie Pratt and Kwame Boafo

      Thank you for your comment. Although our blog focuses on the emergence of semi-autonomous vehicles in the near future, fully-automated vehicles will eventually reach the consumer and fleet marketplaces. We agree that fully-automated vehicles will be a “game changer,” with immense potential for increased mobility for the older population and the physically challenged. We also agree that new laws and enforcement policies will have to accompany these innovations.

      You asked how automation in vehicles might be applied to existing technology. We would expect the adoption of highly-automated vehicles to follow essentially the same path as other safety features such as ABS and electronic stability control. These features generally start out as optional equipment on new vehicles, but they eventually become standard equipment on new vehicles as consumers demand them and as their safety benefits become clear.

      After any new technology is introduced, there will always be a period of transition as vehicles with new technology gradually replace older vehicles without the technology. This is certainly true for fleet vehicles. Employers will need to be aware of the availability of this technology as they consider the purchase or leasing of new fleet vehicles. And, they will have to be sure that their policies keep pace with the introduction of this technology.

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  4. April 22, 2014 at 10:34 am ET  -   Stewart Boxell

    You bring up some interesting points and I agree that the discussions need to begin now. I think the key wording is “semi-autonomous” which tells me the driver is still a part of the system but I’m not sure how they can remain connected while being distracted. It will be interesting to see how legislators address distracted driving laws. Level 3 also mentions “under certain …conditions”. I believe this means a driver will still need to know how to drive and wonder if switching modes will create poor habits for when the semi-autonomous system is not able to function.

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT April 28, 2014 at 9:22 am ET  -   Stephanie Pratt and Kwame Boafo

      Thanks for your great comments, Stewart. You are right: ‘semi-autonomous’ implies the driver should be present at all times to take back control of the vehicle. The concerns you express about the cognitive challenges of transitioning from ‘self-driving’ mode to ‘manual control’ mode are well-founded. We are aware of research on adaptive cruise control (ACC) conducted in simulators that shows that study participants didn’t reclaim control of the vehicle quickly enough to avoid a crash in cases where the ACC system was deliberately designed to fail. In another study, a survey of drivers whose vehicles were equipped with ACC, drivers reported a number of concerns related to understanding the system and how they were expected to communicate and react to it. ACC is at a lower level of automation than semi-autonomous vehicles will be, so it is possible that the issues identified by these studies may be compounded in the case of semi-autonomous vehicles.

      We agree that the introduction of highly-automated vehicles poses a challenge for policy makers. As you may know, at least four states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation to authorize and set conditions for the testing of these vehicles on their roads. Many other states are considering similar legislation. As semi-autonomous vehicles enter the consumer marketplace, it will be interesting to see how legislators choose to address the issue. Will it be incorporated into existing laws on distracted driving, or will states and localities choose to address it as a separate issue? From the perspective of employers, this will be a policy challenge similar to what they encountered with distracted driving: Should they wait for the states to make laws, or should they be thinking about putting their own policies in place? With distracted driving, many companies have chosen to be more restrictive than state laws by prohibiting the use of both hand-held and hands-free electronic devices while vehicles are in motion.

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  5. April 22, 2014 at 3:22 pm ET  -   Theresa Tonozzi

    These innovations have the potential to greatly impact the safety of motor vehicle use at the workplace and for the public by decreasing distracted or dangerous driving habits. I have previously heard about the Google Car and how this technology is helping to improve people’s lives (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdgQpa1pUUE). I wonder if this will enable people with disabilities, such as those who are legally blind, to work a certain job where they previously could not and how employers will provide those agreements.

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  6. April 23, 2014 at 4:06 am ET  -   kumara

    MMM I think it is time to go beyond semi autonomous now! Universities like Standford are having enough expertise and they have already developed driver less vehicles with a proven accuracy. AI and machine learning has big technical role in developing these things. Nevertheless good job to pay attention on this area at least with semi autonomous work!

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT April 23, 2014 at 3:10 pm ET  -   Stephanie Pratt and Kwame Boafo

      Great perspective, Kumara. At NIOSH, our immediate focus is the introduction of semi-autonomous vehicles in workplace fleets, and how employers might address them in their vehicle selection criteria and safety management systems. As you point out, though, there is a lot of exciting research underway that is moving this technology forward very quickly. For example, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has implemented its Safety Pilot project, which is testing connected vehicles and infrastructure in a real-world environment (www.safetypilot.us). Another example is the continuous DARPA urban challenge for autonomous vehicles in California (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0NTV2mbJhA).

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  7. April 24, 2014 at 4:50 am ET  -   L.A.

    A game changer indeed and personally, I am up for all state-of-the-art technologies that ties in broadly with the “Sustainable Transport” agenda. I think the benefits of Autonomous driving (Level 3 & 4) are well established, particularly that along the lines of reduced carbon emissions and improved safety but arguably, answers provided so far with respect to liability issues are far from convincing. The Sheppey pile-up last autumn will be an interesting one to crack where vehicles kept crashing into each other for 10 minutes under thick fog.

    Against the background that Autonomous driving has been developing rapidly for over 20 years, it is refreshing to know that good progress is being made in this sector. Milton Keynes Council, UK have successfully trialled driverless pods and I believe the state of California (among others) have passed laws to allow autonomous cars on public roads. Other recent developments such as the electric cable ferry in Norway and the test carried out by Carrefour in France relating to what is claimed to be the world’s largest all-electric truck are admirable too.

    Coincidentally, the Royal Institute of Navigation is holding a one day conference on the 29th April 2014 to seek answers on what has been achieved so far; what technical barriers remain; concerns over misuse, including terrorism and privacy issues; how all stakeholder needs will be met; accommodating vulnerable road users as well as older vintage cars (as pointed out by Kerl); expected milestones; emerging security hazards; liability and regulation issues etc.

    Going forward, will these vehicles be smart enough to observe traffic signs? By this, I don’t mean warning signs or Directional Signs as it is almost certain that on board computers/sensors will be capable of observing sharp bends, and Origin-Destination issues can well be taken care of by Satellite Navigation systems. The real deal here is whether these will be intelligent enough to observe Variable Message Signs (VMS) in the event of an incident for e.g. where the hard shoulder is required as a running carriageway.

    In the UK particularly (I am sure it applies to many countries as well) Heavy Goods Vehicles do have different speed limits depending on the class of road they are travelling on and this makes me wonder how the various classes of vehicles will interact under free flowing conditions where lane changing is less onerous.

    Professedly, concerns regarding funding should be left for another day. More grease to Stephanie and Kwame same way…

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  8. April 24, 2014 at 12:25 pm ET  -   Fizi

    There is no doubt that fully automating our transportation system will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of traffic flow, improve air quality, and reduce traffic incidents and fatalities on our roads. To maintain the nation’s economic competitiveness will mean moving goods and services efficiently and effectively. With the continual increase in transportation infrastructure demand and dwindling resources, one of the optimal options will be to maintain our current transportation infrastructure through systems automation, such as highly-automated vehicles. Will this concept be welcomed by employers in the workplace? Absolutely!! However, we have to approach this concept ensuring the necessary policy implications are addressed in an equitable fashion.

    In my opinion, of all the three policy implications topics you enumerated, driver training and licensing is the least compelling but also sensitive topic. This change can be likened to other technological fields, where continual training is required of the employee that is sometimes paid for by the employer, or the employee. However, getting this training will bring up the equity issue I mentioned earlier. If employees are required to pay for their training, how much will it affect lower paid employees compared to higher paid employees? How do you address this equity gap and how will that affect older employees who will not be willing to undergo the necessary training? And in the long term, how will this affect productivity and the retention of experienced but older personnel? This is an area that research can go into, so employees can identify better ways to address them if it turns out to be any significant impact.

    To add to the liability precedents, I strongly believe that the airline industry will be a place to look and research how such liabilities have been handled. I am very sure there are instances like these that have involved all three parties, i.e., the pilot, Airline Company, and manufactures of the systems. Taking precedents from these well-developed industries can greatly inform us in dealing with such implications at this level of implementation.

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    • AUTHOR COMMENT April 28, 2014 at 10:21 am ET  -   Stephanie Pratt and Kwame Boafo

      Thank you for your comments, Fizi. We’d like to address your comment about the potentially sensitive issue of training and licensing to operate semi-autonomous vehicles, and the equity issues surrounding who pays for training. We hadn’t envisioned that the training needed to operate these vehicles would be so extensive as to require a Commercial Driver’s License or similar certification. Rather, it would seem that training and orientation to semi-autonomous vehicles would be part of the training we would expect an employer to provide in fulfillment of their responsibility to protect worker safety. This is consistent with a standard recommendation NIOSH has made in various guidance documents on motor vehicle safety: that employers should provide specialized training so that workers can safely operate the type of vehicle assigned to them. It would also seem prudent that employers would choose to provide this training as a strategy to reduce liability associated with vehicles they purchase or lease.

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  9. April 26, 2014 at 7:35 pm ET  -   Lartey

    I believe that (semi)automation can go a long way to reduce accidents on our roads. I am more interested in the reduction of carbon emission and improvement of air quality. Are there any figures to show (semi)automation can reduce carbon emission? I agree that we need laws to curb the abuse of the technology and drivers should be continually educated on the limitations of these technological advancements.

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  10. April 27, 2014 at 9:23 pm ET  -   Bill Harbison

    With the increase of States repealing their motorcycle helmet laws, I can see how advancements in vehicle automation could definitely save lives. Blind spot detection in cars and trucks can reduce the number of accidents and collisions with smaller vehicles like motorcycles. Being a part of a motorcycle community, i feel we need to look for more ways to protect riders instead of appealing laws that do. do everyone a favor a wear a helmet even if your State says it’s OK not to.

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  11. May 2, 2014 at 8:46 am ET  -   WM

    Nice blog Dr Pratt. Out of interest, would you select such a semi-automomous vehicle for yourself or other family to drive? Personally I do not much like cars and driving, but some people do, and I wonder if taking away their automony in such a way is a good thing? Also, what happens when you go from driving your semi-automomous vehicle, to a more traditional vehicle – is it likely to affect such people’s concentration etc levels? Thanks.

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  12. May 18, 2014 at 9:29 pm ET  -   Am

    Very good point about the liability implications. This is an issue that needs to be carefully examined before these vehicles are rolled out.

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  13. June 6, 2014 at 3:28 am ET  -   kebhariads

    motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death.Also, what happens when you go from driving your semi-automomous vehicle, to a more traditional vehicle – is it likely to affect such people’s concentration etc levels.

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  14. June 16, 2014 at 3:48 am ET  -   Oil

    I think that semi-automomous vehicles will reduce the accidents, and I’m sure that this kind of vehicles will reduce the contamination. I hope that this tecnology will arrive soon.

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  15. June 17, 2014 at 1:31 pm ET  -   Jim Platner

    In the construction industry, off of the public roads, semi-autonomous vehicles are already a commercial reality, for example see Leica geosystems advertisement
    http://eblast.bnpmedia.com/CUSTOM/SP0514eBlast/SP0514-MC-ebook-FNL-R1.pdf
    Existing systems use a combination of GPS, lasar scanners, and CAD data files. Like in manufacturing, robotic safety should limit robotic operations or power down when workers enter designated pedestrian free zones. Although it cannot be blamed on semi-autonomous vehicles (YET), about half of highway work zone deaths already occur as the result of work vehicles rather than vehicles operating on adjacent public roads. As vehicles become increasingly autonomous, operators seem more likely to engage in distracting behavior like texting, cell phone use, or viewing/interacting with the GPS screen rather than looking at the nearby “real” environment which already suffers from significant operator blind zones. Has NIOSH guidance or recommendations considered control of these existing risks?

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  16. June 19, 2014 at 7:07 am ET  -   Shan marsh

    I do not much like cars and driving, but some people do, and I wonder if taking away their automony in such a way is a good thing.

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  17. June 23, 2014 at 3:40 pm ET  -   Vinny

    I think these cars are definitely in our future. A lot of it will come down to how much buyers trust computers.

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  18. July 11, 2014 at 11:36 am ET  -   Green Vehicle Recycling Ireland

    The production of semi autonomous vehicles will cause a shift for traditional car breakers and mechanics as they adjust to the computer assisted and computer parts that exist in those vehicles. Car breakers will have to learn the technical jargon for the auto electrical parts associated with new semi autonomous vehicles.

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  19. August 17, 2014 at 7:58 pm ET  -   Richard Cartledge

    Equipment that enhances safety should be available on the most basic vehicle offered by all manufacturers.

    Requiring leather seats, additional luxury profit items, including a sun roof which reduces safety of passengers should be prohibited by law.

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  20. August 29, 2014 at 5:10 am ET  -   Neco

    Great post! Thank you!

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  21. September 4, 2014 at 2:48 am ET  -   janeleonard

    Semi autonomous cars are really a great expedition. Though they have lot more benefits to add on, what if the operation system fails strands with its functionality. This seems to be a point of question and the manufacturers should also have the answer for these extreme cases.

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  22. September 4, 2014 at 3:23 am ET  -   Most expensive cars

    Very efficiently written information. It will be beneficial to anybody who utilizes it, including me. Keep up the good work. For sure i will check out more posts. This site seems to get a good amount of visitors.
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  23. September 18, 2014 at 6:07 pm ET  -   Mick

    Great post, I love the idea of autonomous cars, this opens a great many benefits to society and can only help for the good of us all, i wonder which Car Brands will start to develop and invest the most money into making semi/full autonomous vehicles?

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  24. September 27, 2014 at 2:32 am ET  -   Microtrol Inc.

    Any idea what the infrastructural costs will be (assuming that automation systems will be implemented to facilitate navigation for fully automated vehicles) to reach Levels 3 and 4 once we have the capability to manufacture such vehicles?

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