Google's self-driving car

A new study from a non-partisan think-tank recommends that the federal government play a larger role in overseeing self-driving vehicles. Published by The Eno Center for Transportation, which promotes policy innovation, “Preparing a Nation for Autonomous Vehicles” suggests that policymakers:

  • Expand funding for autonomous vehicle research;
  • Develop federal guidelines for their licensing; and
  • Determine appropriate standards for liability, security, and data privacy.

The study says that although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has developed guidelines for testing self-driving vehicles, licensing their use has been left to the states. However, a larger federal role could help ensure continuity between the states, and could help governments better pool their resources as they seek to address safety and operations standards facing the new technology, the study says.

Daniel Fagnant, the study’s author, projects that once self-driving cars comprise 90% of those on the roads, the overall fleet of automobiles will shrink to more than 40% of what it is now, writes Kevin Robillard for Politico. Robillard reports that at an event on Wednesday, Fagnant said, “We’re looking at the introduction of AVs [autonomous vehicles] by the end of the decade.”

Robillard writes:

The Eno Center for Transportation released a paper that predicted a nation full of driverless ‘autonomous’ vehicles could save $447 billion and 21,700 lives annually by preventing 4.2 million crashes and reducing fuel consumption by 724 million gallons. Still, switching from highways full of drivers to highways full of computers won’t be simple.

The “headache,” Robillard writes, comes in getting there. Although many automakers are working on the self-driving technology, U.S. laws are designed for the current system in which a driver is responsible for the vehicle that he or she is driving. Such laws would need to be addressed, something that legislatures in California and three others states have started to tackle, Robillard writes. California has directed that licensing requirements be ready by 2015, and Florida and Nevada have also passed laws to regulate the licensing and operation of self-driving cars, Associated Press writes in an article appearing on CBS DC.

Some autonomous features — such as automatic breaking, systems that keep a car at a safe distance from the one in front, and sensors to warn a driver when the car is veering out of lane — are already available on high-end cars, writes Constantine Von Hoffman for CBS News Moneywatch. And those automakers who have been working on self-driving technology include Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo, he writes. In addition, as this blog has reported, Google has been testing self-driving cars, and as Von Hoffman notes, was a prime force behind California’s legalization of such vehicles in 2012.

Associated Press writes that the biggest hurdle in getting autonomous cars on the roads is likely to be the cost. The study said that the added technology currently comes to more than $100,000 per vehicle, which most people would not be able to afford. However, the study concludes that large-scale production would bring the cost down considerably over time, AP writes. Robillard writes that the first people to buy self-driving cars can expect to pay at least $10,000 more per vehicle, but the study says that will eventually drop to only $3,000 more per vehicle.

But the advantages would be great, especially for safety. Even if only 10% of the vehicles on the roads were self-driving, they could reduce traffic deaths by 1,000 a year, the study says, as AP writes. That is partly because computers make ideal drivers, as AP writes:

They don’t drink and then climb behind the wheel. They don’t do drugs, get distracted, fall asleep, run red lights or tailgate. And their reaction times are quicker. […]

Government research indicates driver error is likely the main reason behind over 90 percent of all crashes. Over 40 percent of fatal traffic crashes involve alcohol, distraction, drugs or fatigue. But self-driven vehicles wouldn’t fall prey to such human failings, suggesting the potential for at least a 40 percent reduction in fatal crashes, the study said.

Crashes can also be due to speeding, aggressive driving, over-compensation, inexperience, slow reaction times, inattention and various other human driver shortcomings, the report noted, suggesting that computers could also reduce those.

AP quotes Joshua Schank, the president and CEO of Eno, “The hardest part will likely be making self-driving cars ‘cost effective to the point where this is not just a gadget that some people enjoy, but becomes mainstream.'”

Image by Saad Faruque.

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