White House hopes to shape national policy on driverless cars

Google , Inc., Self Driving Car Project CEO John Krafcik speaks at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, Mich. on Jan. 12, 2016. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
By Ashley Halsey III January 14 at 1:45 PM
The Obama administration said Thursday that it will work with auto makers and state governments on a national policy to speed up the arrival of driverless cars on U.S. highways.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx promised a series of initiatives that will help untangle the myriad legal and technical issues that could gum up the process.

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” Foxx said. “Today’s actions and those we will pursue in the coming months will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials, and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential.”

The plan laid out by Foxx in a speech at the Detroit Auto Show foresees an active federal role in promoting high-tech innovations in an evolution toward self-driving cars that will take several decades to complete.

Foxx said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will work with auto makers and state governments to develop prototype laws and regulations for state law makers to consider. Auto makers seeking to road test their driverless cars now have to deal with a patchwork of state regulations.

Foxx said NHTSA also would work with auto makers in the next six months to refine the performance characteristics and testing methods for autonomous cars. He said the department would consider seeking any new authority necessary to get driverless cars on the road “in large numbers when demonstrated to provide an equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available.”

The federal push comes on the heels of data from driverless car developers that suggests that their vehicles perform admirably under the ideal conditions but run into more problems on unfamiliar routes or when the weather gets rough. The California Department of Motor Vehicles required seven companies to disclose how frequently drivers had to take control away from the computers running the vehicle.
[How Much Will A Driverless Car Save You? More Than $1,000 Per Year]

One of the developers, Google, said that in driving 424,000 miles, its drivers had to take the wheel of the test vehicles 341 times when software failed or to prevent a collision. Five other companies said they recorded 2,400 driver takeovers while logging 36,000 miles.

But as the federal government continues to fuel momentum for driverless cars, developing the technology is the least of the challenges. Put an autonomous car on the interstate system right now, and it has the ability to drive from coast to coast without the touch of a driver, except when it’s time to refuel.

The software of autonomous vehicles needs plenty of tweaking and refinement to be city-street ready, but the basic ability of the cars to get around on their own has been proven by test vehicles all over the nation, including on the congested streets of Washington, D.C.

[Driverless vehicles? Even in D.C. streets? A car takes a capital test run]

A bigger chore for those advancing the self-driving car could be called the psycho-societal challenge. Generations of drivers taught the wisdom of two hands of the wheel will want to be convinced that no-hands is just as safe, or even safer.

But before they get the chance to experience that themselves, so much else has to change. The states, who are responsible for driving laws, have to come up with how this brave new world will function.

Those lawmakers, perhaps in concert with insurance companies, have to decide who should be liable if a self-driving car makes a bad decision that causes an accident: the owner, who should have interceded to save the day, the auto maker, the computer programer who wrote the faulty program, or all of them?

Almost since the moment that computer science hatched the notion that a car might drive by itself, ethicists have been posing questions like this classic: a car’s computer has no choice but to decide between hitting a tree that could prove fatal to driver and passenger or ramming a mother pushing a baby carriage through a crosswalk. What is the correct decision?

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Once the nitty-gritty needed to make the system work is resolved, the drivers at risk of being replaced by software will come into play. There is belief they will be gently lulled along toward giving up the wheel through a series of baby steps, the latest being collision avoidance technology which alerts drivers in dangerous situations. If they get comfortable with a car telling them what to do, they may come to trust its computer with additional responsibilities.

Foxx last year promised to speed the process that will allow cars to talk to one another– computer to computer. In time, the theory goes, the hands-on duties of the driver will be striped away until the day comes when they need not drive at all.

How will the world evolve over the 20 to 30 years it is expected to take for the transition to autonomous cars? That question is already in debate. Will people relieved of the tedious, and often white-knuckle, chore of commuting in traffic flock to the suburbs and beyond? Or will cars capable of parking themselves and returning when summoned make city living more attractive?

Will cars that drive at consistent speeds and make logical computer decisions be the antidote to chronic congestion or will less congested roads entice so more people to drive that they create new congestion?

Nissan is the most audacious developer, insisting it will have a driverless car ready to market by 2020. Several other auto makers — Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Tesla — have autonomous cars in the works, as do Google and parts suppliers Delphia and Bosch.

Ford showed it planned to be a player last month when it said it would expand its testing of a hands-free Ford Fusion to sunny California this year, escaping the Michigan winter weather.

There have been various projections about just when autonomous cars will begin to appear on the roads in significant numbers, but there is general agreement that it will take 20 or 30 years before the existing fleet of cars turns over to the point where they dominate the roads.