Government ready to fuel the rise of autonomous ca… – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Posted: Sunday, January 17, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has announced that it will work with automakers 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 bullish on automated vehicles,” Mr. Foxx said Thursday. “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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Foxx said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will work with automakers and state governments to develop prototype laws and regulations for state lawmakers to consider.

Automakers seeking to road test their driverless cars now must deal with a patchwork of state regulations.

Mr. Foxx said NHTSA also would work with automakers during 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 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 computer running the vehicle.

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 to prevent a collision or when software failed. Five other companies said they had 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 is 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.

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 on 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, which 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, must 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 automaker; the computer programer who wrote the faulty program; or all of them?

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 that they will be gently lulled along toward giving up the wheel through a series of baby steps, the latest being collision-avoidance technology that 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.

HalseyAnthony FoxxCaliforniaUnited StatesNorth AmericaCalifornia state government

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