Autonomous Vehicles As a ‘Killer App’ for AI

Robert Seamans
By Robert Seamans
Artificial intelligence (AI) is used in a wide variety of products and services, including maps embedded on our smart phones and “chat bots” that help answer our questions on websites. Many hope that AI will transform our economy in ways that drive growth, similar to how steam engines did in the late 19th century and electricity did in the early 20th century. But it is hard to imagine that maps on smart phones, chatbots, and other existing AI-enabled services will drive the type of economic growth we saw from stream and electricity. What we need to see are some dramatic new AI-enabled products and services that transform our way of life—in short, we are waiting for an AI “killer app.”

Autonomous vehicles (AVs)—vehicles that accelerate, brake, and turn on their own, requiring little or no input from a human driver—may be such a killer app that transforms our economy significantly. AI supports AVs in a variety of ways, including quickly processing and interpreting the large amounts of data generated by the vehicle’s cameras and sensors and helping to improve vehicle fuel efficiency and safety. The impacts of broad adoption of AVs are equally numerous, from potentially lowering transportation costs by limiting the need for drivers to possibly transforming mobility in urban and suburban environments. While the relative timing and scale of economic growth is not yet clear—and subject to some debate among scholars—a key step in maximizing the benefits of AVs is passing federal legislation, rather than relying on a patchwork of state and local guidelines. To inform the debate and help prepare policymakers for the task at hand, this report will examine the state of AVs, the potential for them to become a “killer app” with broad impacts, and the existing and potential regulations that could ensure net positive effects on the economy and society as a whole.

The current standards for autonomous driving were developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE International). According to the SAE standard, the automation capability of vehicles ranges from Level 0, with no autonomy, to Level 5, which is full automation. Level 1 features include park assist, lane assist and adaptive cruise control. A few vehicles qualify as Level 3, which require human intervention in complex situations such as traffic jams, including Tesla’s vehicles, the Nissan Leaf, and Audi A8. No Level 4 or 5 cars, which would not require any human intervention, are yet certified for use on regular roads, though there are some such as Google’s Waymo that are in development.

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Robert Seamans is Associate Professor of Management and Organizations.