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