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Self-Driving Cars and Highway Safety

June 05, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

"Self-driving vehicle development ... holds promising long-term safety benefits," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the other day as his department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a "preliminary statement of policy" regarding futuristic dreams of automated highway travel.

From Google to General Motors to Mercedes-Benz, companies are building and testing prototype cars that can steer, stop and park themselves, maintain safe distances from other vehicles and obstructions and even signal their human "drivers" to take back the controls when necessary.

No, they haven't started working yet on a car you can send unoccupied to pick up groceries. And, for Minnesotans, pushing your driverless car out of a winter snowbank may be quite a ways off. The NHTSA said much research is still needed to address the effects of "environmental variations (rain, snow, etc.)" on driverless vehicle operation.

However, according to the New York Times, "Autonomous cars could increase safety because they are not subject to human error like disobeying traffic laws and falling asleep at the wheel ... They could also offer mobility to people who cannot drive, like the disabled or the aging."

Those are best-case scenarios. A poll by the U.S. carmakers' trade group Auto Alliance found four out of five respondents worried about computer hackers taking control of a self-driving vehicle. And even without evil-doers, technology can fail where the human touch would not.

"The first time a driverless vehicle swerves to avoid a shopping cart and hits a stroller, someone's going to write, 'Robot car kills baby to save groceries,' " Ryan Calo, co-founder of the Legal Aspects of Autonomous Driving Center at Stanford University, told the Times. "It's those kinds of reasons you want to make sure this stuff is fully tested."

The NHTSA agreed. Despite more than a half-million miles of testing in northern California by Google alone, "Self-driving vehicle technology is not yet at the stage of sophistication or demonstrated safety capability that it should be authorized for use by members of the public for general driving purposes," the agency said.

It is launching a four-year study of automated vehicle safety, focusing on human interaction with driverless cars, reliability and risks such as cyberattacks. Meanwhile, it recommended special state licenses for operating autonomous vehicles, easy-to-reach buttons that can return control to the driver and detailed reporting on accidents.

Most such rules would be up to the states to enact and enforce. So far, California, Florida and Nevada have legalized driverless cars, but most other states' statutes don't address the technology and allow it by default. The NHTSA can issue rules for the vehicles themselves, but says they are too early in development for setting safety standards.

Meanwhile, some say fully autonomous cars will be commercially available within a decade. Already, automated driving technology is creeping onto showroom floors. Perhaps the simplest form is cruise control, long a staple on American cars. Many automakers have improved on that with adaptive cruise control that automatically slows down when approaching another vehicle. Ford offers a Fusion with a system that warns drivers if they stray from their lane. Mercedes is planning radar systems to avert impending collisions.

If these and future crash fail-safes fulfill their potential, Americans could save hundreds of billions of dollars a year now lost to road fatalities, hospital costs, missed work and property damage while opening up new opportunities for investment and employment, the NHTSA said.

Moreover, it added, "Vehicle control systems that automatically accelerate and brake with the flow of traffic can conserve fuel more efficiently than the average driver ... Highly effective crash avoidance technologies can reduce fuel consumption by also eliminating the traffic congestion that crashes cause ... To the extent vehicles can communicate with each other and with the highway infrastructure, the potential for safer and more efficient driving will be increased even more."

We'll see. I'm still waiting for my flying car that was promised by 1950s futurists. (Think of what Jetson-mobiles could do for road and bridge maintenance budgets, but they'd need radar crash-avoidance systems big time.) Technology marches on, though, and the federal authorities are wisely treading lightly around driverless cars so far.

"Any potential regulatory action ... must appropriately balance the need to ensure motor vehicle safety with the flexibility to innovate," the NHTSA said.

Absolutely. It's great that industry is aggressively developing driverless technology. It's also great that government, for whom public safety is Job One, is paying attention.

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  • John Cook says:

    June 10, 2013 at 10:57 am

    A good portion of those hundreds of billions could be saved tomorrow with required and recurrent motor vehicle skills training and validation.  The idea that an eye test every 4 years is all that is required to put someone in charge of a 5000 lb lethal projectile is ridiculous.  Air travel is 10 times safer than auto travel largely because pilots are required to take recurrent training and check rides.  Realistic auto simulators are widely available already.  A country willing to spend billions on salaries and x-ray machines to prevent a once every 10 year, 200 death event when a fraction of that cost for testing simulators would address 40,000 annual deaths and 800,000 debilitating injuries has got its priorities completely out of whack.  I think Google needs to develop a smarter government and not a smarter car.