9 critical challenges autonomous vehicles must overcome


Autonomous vehicles have been a focal point of technological advancement over the past few decades, evolving from conceptual experiments to tangible, albeit imperfect, products. Despite the rapid progress, the journey toward fully autonomous vehicles—where human intervention is unnecessary—remains fraught with challenges. This article explores the current state of autonomous vehicle technology, focusing on significant hurdles and recent developments, particularly from leading companies like Tesla and Waymo.

Tesla’s Full Self-Driving (FSD)

Tesla’s Full Self-Driving (FSD) technology represents the cutting-edge autonomous vehicle technology available to consumers today. As of early 2023, Tesla’s FSD can navigate complex driving environments, including dirt roads, country backroads, busy town centers, and freeways.

However, FSD still encounters challenges. It sometimes relies on inaccurate Google Maps data and struggles with road markings and signs. For instance, when transitioning from a 25 mph subdivision to a 45 mph country road without speed limit signs, FSD may guess incorrectly, causing delays and potential safety issues. Tesla’s frequent software updates show continuous improvement, yet achieving true autonomy remains a work in progress.

One significant obstacle for Tesla is the regulatory environment. Despite technological advancements, laws must be updated to allow autonomous driving without human oversight. Political pressures from competitors and public misinformation further complicate this process.

Waymo’s Approach

Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), focuses on fully autonomous taxi services within limited city areas. Their detailed mapping and limited operational areas reduce the type of mapping issues Tesla faces. However, Waymo’s smaller fleet and restricted areas limit real-world driving data, which is essential for robust AI training.

Waymo supplements real-world data with simulations, but this method has limitations. Real-world scenarios, like wildlife behavior, are difficult to replicate accurately in simulations. Tesla’s larger fleet provides a more comprehensive data set, giving it an advantage in AI development.

Other Automakers

Other automakers lag behind Tesla and Waymo by several years. Their current offerings often only provide basic driver assistance features like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance. These systems require detailed maps and are limited to well-defined highways.

These automakers must adopt a more aggressive approach to data collection and AI training to catch up. This includes equipping vehicles with 360-degree cameras and maintaining constant connectivity to gather real-world driving data.

Major Challenges for Autonomous Vehicles

1. Unpredictable Road Conditions

Road conditions vary widely and can be extremely unpredictable. In some areas, roads are smooth and well-marked, while in others, they have deteriorated considerably. There are lane-free roads, potholes, and tunnels where signals are unclear. Additionally, road marking lines differ around the globe. Most self-driving cars rely heavily on highly detailed 3D maps that communicate intersections, stop signs, ramps, and buildings with automotive computer systems. These maps, combined with sensor readings, help navigate. However, very few roads have been mapped to this degree, and existing maps can quickly become outdated as conditions change. A major task for automated vehicle developers is to map roads comprehensively.

2. Weather Conditions

Autonomous vehicles should function under all weather conditions—sunny, rainy, or stormy. There’s no room for failure or downtime. Snow, rain, fog, and other weather conditions make driving difficult for humans and present similar challenges for driverless cars. These conditions can obscure lane lines that vehicle cameras use for navigation, and falling snow or rain can interfere with laser sensors’ ability to identify obstacles. Radar can see through weather but doesn’t provide the detailed shape of objects that computers need to identify. Researchers are working on laser sensors that use different light beam wavelengths to see through snowflakes and developing software to help vehicles differentiate between real obstacles and weather-related artifacts.

3. Traffic and Human Drivers

Autonomous vehicles must navigate highways and city streets under all traffic conditions, sharing the road with numerous human drivers and pedestrians. Traffic can be chaotic because individuals often breach traffic laws. Even the most sophisticated algorithms cannot predict human drivers’ and pedestrians’ messy, unexpected, and sometimes irrational behavior. Computer systems can help self-driving vehicles comply with road laws—stopping, slowing down when a signal turns yellow, and resuming when it turns green. However, these systems cannot control the behavior of other drivers who may speed, pass illegally, or drive the wrong way on a one-way street. Autonomous vehicles must be able to cope with human drivers who don’t always play by the rules.

4. Accident Liability and Insurance

Accident liability and insurance present significant challenges for self-driving vehicles. Who is liable for accidents caused by an autonomous vehicle? How do insurance companies handle incidents where the driver is not paying attention? The software is the primary decision-making component for autonomous cars. While initial autonomous car models had a human physically behind the steering wheel, later models had no dashboard or steering wheel. In such designs, where the car lacks traditional controls like a steering wheel, brake pedal, and accelerator pedal, it is unclear how the person inside should control the car in the event of an incident.

5. Radar Interference

Autonomous cars use a combination of navigation systems, lasers, and radars. Lasers are typically mounted on the roof, while sensors are installed on the car’s body. Radar operates by detecting radio wave reflections from surrounding objects. On the road, a car continually emits radio frequency waves reflecting off nearby cars and objects. The system measures the time the reflection takes to compute the distance between the car and the object, taking appropriate actions based on radar readings. A key challenge is whether the car can distinguish between its reflected signals and those from other vehicles when hundreds of cars use this technology. Although radar operates in several radio frequency ranges, these ranges may not suffice for all vehicles.

6. Consumer Acceptance

Surveys conducted after the fatal Uber crash near Phoenix showed that drivers are reluctant to relinquish control to a computer. In a March survey, 71 percent of respondents feared riding in fully autonomous vehicles. Consumers now view self-driving cars as less safe than two years ago, and nearly half said they would never buy a Level 5 car. However, consumers still expect semi-autonomous features in future cars, believing that collision alert and collision avoidance systems help people become better drivers.

7. Creating Cost-Effective Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles’ sensors, radars, and communication devices are expensive. In 2020, a Level 4 or Level 5 car could cost an additional $75,000 to $100,000 compared to a regular car. The total cost may exceed $100,000, given the number of sensors required to achieve Levels 4 and 5 autonomy. For customers to purchase these vehicles, prices must drop dramatically to become affordable. Currently, with such high costs, only Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS), ride-sharing, or robotaxi companies can realistically deploy autonomous vehicles. These companies can build a business model to support these expensive vehicles by eliminating the cost of a human driver.

8. Sophistication of AI

A significant technical hurdle is the sophistication of the AI itself. Autonomous vehicles must learn to evaluate conflicting goals and create socially satisfactory outcomes. This involves complex decision-making, such as when to prioritize safety over expediency. Current AI systems often resolve route conflicts by stopping or slowing down, which is not always feasible in real-world driving. For instance, an AI might take hours to deliver a pizza if obstructed by loitering children, unable to decide when to push forward or maneuver around them. Such decision-making reflects broader AI challenges in balancing risk, safety, and efficiency, which are profoundly complex and difficult to address.

9. Cybersecurity Concerns

With increased connectivity comes heightened cybersecurity risks. Autonomous vehicles are vulnerable to cyberattacks, compromising vehicle control systems and data integrity.

  • Vulnerabilities in Connectivity: Autonomous vehicles connect to external networks using wireless communication protocols like cellular networks and Wi-Fi, which are susceptible to cyberattacks. Securing these channels is critical to prevent unauthorized access and data breaches.
  • Data Integrity and Privacy Concerns: Ensuring the integrity and privacy of data collected by autonomous vehicles is essential to protect against misuse and maintain user trust.
  • Hacking and Malicious Attacks: Hackers can target control systems of autonomous vehicles to manipulate driving behavior or gain unauthorized access. Scenarios where hackers cause accidents or take control of the car are particularly concerning.
  • Secure Communication Protocols: Implementing secure communication protocols with robust encryption and authentication mechanisms is vital to protect data transmitted between vehicles and external networks.
  • In-Vehicle Network Security: Securing internal networks within autonomous vehicles is crucial to prevent threats from within, protecting communication between electronic control units (ECUs).
  • Over-the-Air (OTA) Software Updates: OTA updates are necessary for maintaining and improving autonomous vehicle software. Ensuring the authenticity of these updates is crucial to prevent the installation of malicious software.


The path to fully autonomous vehicles is complex and multifaceted, involving technological, legal, and social challenges. While companies like Tesla and Waymo lead the charge, significant hurdles remain. Technological advancements, regulatory changes, and increased consumer acceptance are essential to realizing the vision of fully autonomous vehicles.

Despite the challenges, the pace of progress is rapid. Tesla’s FSD technology exemplifies the potential for near-future autonomous driving, with continuous improvements bringing us closer to a world where cars drive themselves safely and efficiently.