Google self-driving car

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a “Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles,” saying that the United States is at a “historic turning point for automotive travel.” The policy anticipates the next 10 to 20 years will be a period of exciting vehicle innovations that will bring completely new possibilities for improving highway safety, increasing environmental benefits, expanding mobility, and creating new opportunities for jobs and investment, NHTSA writes in a report issued this week.

The technologies the policy discusses include:

  • In-vehicle crash avoidance systems that provide warnings and/or limited automated control of safety functions;
  • Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications that support various crash avoidance applications; and
  • Self-driving vehicles.

NHTSA says it is issuing its policy statement to help states implement the new technologies safely, so their benefits can be realized. According to the agency:

Preventing significant numbers of crashes will, in addition to relieving the enormous emotional toll on families, also greatly reduce the enormous related societal costs — lives lost, hospital stays, days of work missed, and property damage — that total in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

The agency believes that delineating its policy now is a very important part of charting a course, in order to avoid confusion about auto safety issues that could impede the development of the technologies. The policy statement was also partly inspired by several states (as well as companies seeking to develop the technologies) asking for NHTSA’s suggestions on how to safely test the technology on public highways.

John Goreham writes in Torque News that the policy comes: “Just in time, since cars that drive themselves are already here.” As this blog reported in October 2012, Google and Volvo have been working on driverless cars, and Jalopnik writes that Audi is also working on an autonomous vehicle.

In addition, AARP reported in March: “At the recent Detroit Auto Show, Toyota unveiled its version of the self-driving car, a modified Lexus, though the company was careful to stipulate that it is for research purposes only, and not being developed for sale.” Nevada, California, and Florida have enacted laws to permit the operation of self-driving vehicles under certain conditions, as aftermarketNews notes.

NHTSA says it does not recommend that states allow the operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing at this time, because of technical and human performance issues that need to be addressed first. The policy statement goes on to say:

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. Should a state nevertheless decide to permit such non-testing operation of self-driving vehicles, at a minimum the state should require that a properly licensed driver (i.e., one licensed to drive self-driving vehicles) be seated in the driver’s seat and be available at all times in order to operate the vehicle in situations in which the automated technology is not able to safely control the vehicle.

The agency will reconsider its position on the above as innovation in that area continues, and will regularly review and update its entire automated vehicles policy to offer further clarity and discuss new findings and regulatory activity.

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