George P. Shultz, Robert C. Armstrong

Into the future, revolutions in vehicle automation and networking hold the promise to transform freight and personal road transport, reducing both congestion and energy use for whatever fuel system is used. Variations on advanced vehicle sensing of the environment and automated technologies range from incremental additions to driver abilities—such as adaptive cruise control, stop-and-go traffic management, or lane departure control—all the way to full vehicle autonomy.

Most compellingly, many such technologies could both reduce overall vehicle energy use and offer other more immediate consumer-facing benefits. For example, automated parking capability within an urban area would save time and fuel while reducing curb-side pollution and even cutting down on the significant urban road congestion caused by drivers circling for available parking spaces. Similarly, to the extent that active safety automation reduces the number of vehicle crashes, manufacturers could rely less on passive safety mechanisms such as airbags or steel safety cages—in effect, making vehicles much lighter. This could both dramatically improve vehicle energy efficiency and over time mitigate the ongoing global rise in highway mortality; already 1.3 million people are killed each year in road accidents and an additional 20 to 50 million people are injured according to the World Health Organization. Some of these technologies have grown out of military-sponsored university research—for example, the well-known “DARPA challenges”—and are in early testing stages by vehicle manufacturers and third-party parts suppliers. Considerable work remains, though, in proving this technology’s flexibility and safety, along with establishing both legal frameworks and user norms.