With Google Inc. (GOOG:US) now testing its self-driving car on California highways, automakers and U.S. regulators are anticipating what safety hurdles must be overcome to make vehicle autonomy real.
Regulators see autonomous vehicles as a means to reduce U.S. traffic deaths, which have declined for six straight years while killing an estimated 32,310 people last year.
They’re working now with the designers and potential sellers of cars that can see more and drive smarter than a human to address how to deploy the technology quickly, how to make sure autonomous cars can interact with those controlled by people, and what to do when crashes inevitably happen.
“Automated driving, and the components of it, really is the next evolutionary step for what we see as safety technology in the passenger fleet,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland said yesterday at an automated- vehicles forum in Washington sponsored by Volvo Cars. “We have to make sure the technology is reliable.”
Cars won’t become driverless overnight. An awake person will be required at the helm of even the most independent cars for at least 10 to 20 years, said Peter Mertens, Volvo’s senior vice president for research and development.
Instead, the technology necessary to make cars autonomous may evolve over that time with additions such as adaptive cruise control that slows cars when they’re too close to the vehicle in front of them, and systems that allow vehicles and stop lights to communicate electronically.
The U.S. Transportation Department in August started a field test of almost 3,000 so-called connected vehicles in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The cars are equipped with wireless devices that use global positioning systems to communicate with other vehicles and roadside systems including at intersections.
NHTSA plans to use the information from the Ann Arbor test to determine next year for passenger vehicles and in 2014 for commercial vehicles what to do next with connected vehicles. That may include rulemaking, said Lynda Tran, a spokeswoman for the agency.
The agency, which evaluates vehicles for safety in crash tests and sets standards for parts from headlights to windshield wipers, will have to find a way to evaluate the software or other systems that control an autonomous vehicle, said Ron Medford, the agency’s deputy administrator.
Volvo sees autonomous vehicles as part of its strategy toward its goal of eliminating deaths among people driving its cars by 2020. It wants U.S. regulators to take the lead so states don’t pass varying laws that may restrict testing or use of the technologies, Mertens said.
The Swedish carmaker, owned by Chinese manufacturer Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., last week announced that in 2014 it will offer a traffic-jam assistance system that allows its cars to automatically follow vehicles ahead of them in traffic moving as much as 30 mph (48 kph).
California Governor Jerry Brown last month signed a law allowing trials of self-driving cars on the state’s highways, as long as there’s a licensed human in the driver’s seat to take over if needed.
It directs the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to develop regulations about licensing, testing and operating autonomous vehicles. Google’s self-driving cars had already been road-tested in neighboring Nevada, which like California, wrote a law with the company’s help.
Google, the operator of the world’s largest Internet search engine, has modified a Toyota Prius that drives itself using video cameras, radar sensors, a laser rangefinder and detailed maps. The vehicle includes a failsafe mechanism that lets the driver take control of the car simply by grabbing the steering wheel or hitting the brakes, much like the override on cruise control.
Google, as a technology company getting attention for its foray into the automotive sector, “has to be right the first time” on autonomous vehicles, said Chris Urmson, the company’s technical leader on the project.
“We recognize the responsibility that comes with that,” he said. “It’s important that we proceed as quickly as possible but with all the appropriate caution and safety consciousness.”
Google, based in Mountain View, California, sees the project as enhancing mobility for people who otherwise couldn’t drive and for increasing productivity while driving, Urmson said. According to a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau report, the mean U.S. commute is 25 minutes each way with 76 percent of people saying they drive alone for their commute.
“Our view is that in the future, this is never something that takes away your ability to drive,” he said. “If we keep talking about it as taking away driving, we’re missing the point.”
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