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How the Feds will regulate autonomous cars

NHTSA details its preliminary plans for overseeing self-driving cars.

By Douglas Newcomb Oct 30, 2012 6:09AM

Google self-driving Prius. Photo courtesy of Google.We’re accelerating toward a future of self-driving cars faster than anyone expected. It was only two years ago that Google revealed it had surreptitiously logged more than 200,000 miles with a fleet of self-driving Toyota Priuses. That was right before Audi paraded a self-driving TT up Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Now the federal government is getting involved. Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration laid out its first plans to test and regulate the technology. At a meeting in Washington, D.C., NHTSA administrator David Strickland said developing regulations for self-driving cars will be like nothing else the agency has ever seen.

“Most of NHTSA’s safety standards assume the need for a human driver to operate required safety equipment,” he said. “A vehicle that drives itself challenges this basic assumption.” Autonomous cars will also be a challenge for the legal community to sort out liability issues, and perhaps for drivers to accept the technology.

Strickland acknowledged that “NHTSA has been having extensive discussions with Google” as well as with U.S. automakers regarding plans to make self-driving cars available. GM has said it expects to have fully autonomous cars available by 2020; Google hasn't revealed its commercial plans beyond signaling a willingness to work with automakers.

He also said NHTSA has developed a "motor-vehicle automation road map." As evidence of how far into the future that road map extends, Strickland detailed the agency’s vision of the evolution of autonomous driving, which includes three stages:

  • Monitored automation, which “involves shared authority: The driver cedes primary control, but is still responsible for monitoring and safe operation.” An example that will be available in just a few years is Cadillac’s Super Cruise system, which combines a lane-centering feature with adaptive cruise control, leading to what Strickland called “hands-off" and "feet-off driving," but is still "eyes-on" driving in which “the driver must continually monitor the road and traffic.” Volvo also unveiled a similar technology last week.
  • Conditionally automated, in which “the driver can cede full control authority under certain traffic and environmental conditions but is expected to be available for occasional control.” Google’s self-driving technology is one example. “Here it’s ‘hands-off,’ ‘feet-off’ and ‘eyes-off’ until the driver or the vehicle decides that it’s time for the driver to resume control,” Strickland said.
  • Fully automated, in which “responsibility for safe operation rests solely on the automated systems.” He added that there’s “no such vehicle being designed for civilian highway use at this time, but at some time in the future this may be the logical outcome of the many efforts at automation currently under way."

To better understand the implications of self-driving technology -- and how to draft regulations for it -- NHTSA is planning a a multiyear, $1.75 million research project that it will conduct with Virginia Tech to study the real-world effects of self-driving technology. The agency sees automated driving as a supplement to the vehicle-to-vehicle communication research it is conducting in a yearlong field test in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Strickland didn't mention two factors that most experts say will delay any adoption of self-driving cars: legal issues and consumer acceptance. While he did say that determining fault in a crash "may be much more difficult when control of a vehicle seamlessly transitions from the driver to the vehicle," it will likely take years of legal wrangling to sort out liability with self-driving cars.

I'm confident that consumer acceptance will come much more quickly -- similar to a century before when the then-new "horseless carriage" was looked at with the same suspicion and skepticism as self-driving cars are now.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Nov 4, 2012 5:14AM
I'm not afraid that self-driving cars will be dangerous. I'm afraid that we will be forced to let them drive for us. We may need a Constitutional Amendment that states that our right to drive our own Vehicles will not be infringed.
Nov 4, 2012 6:24AM
If you don't want to drive , why even have a car ? We  already have far too  many distracted drivers out here .  Good driving takes constant concentration - not ocasionnal monitoring from some doofus who's mind is miles away . End the driverless car research and put the money into better training for the many many poorly educated drivers that should be on the bus !
Nov 4, 2012 4:59AM

One big issue for me is that with connectivity there is a vector for hacking, viruses, etc that can compromise the systems. It then becomes possible to engineer both location and time specific 'accidents' as well as random failures for individual vehicles. This is a terrorist's dream.

Virus and hacking detection, periodic system scans, and other detection/prevention measures need to be implemented. There also needs to be a complete, non-software dependent, cut-off of automated control. When dealing with safety we needs to be cautiously optomistic with a heavy dose of cynicism.

Nov 4, 2012 3:34PM
We need to get this tech into the hands of every woman driver in the world. Maybe then the highways will be safer.
Nov 4, 2012 8:38AM
It will be a cold day in hades before those tin-headed gall-monging cylons can outdrive a human without having him outnumbered 10 to 1!
*hums Battlestar (1978) theme*

Skip the self driving cars and go straight to flying cars. Dont waste the money or time.
Nov 4, 2012 11:45AM
As a lawyer, I'm guessing that the automoile industry will make a bunch of plaintiff's lawyers rich. Yet, liability presumably will be based on the existing legal principals of cause and forseeability. At first blush, I don't understand the comment that it will take years for legal liability issues to be sorted out. Regardless of whether a human or a computer makes a decision or causes a vehicle to act (or fail to act) in a manner that causes property damage, or injury or death to a person, liability should lay with the vehicle that caused the damage, injury or death, i.e. which vehicle ran the red light, drifted from its lane, rear ended a vehicle that was stopped, etc. The real fight presumably will be between the insurers and the auto industry.
Nov 4, 2012 7:39PM
I don't know about you but, I enjoy driving
Nov 4, 2012 12:36PM
I am looking forward to self driving cars being available in Maryland.  My son has cerebral palsy and is dependent on public transportation (not always convenient), friends and family to chauffer him.  It would be wonderful for his self-esteem if he could go places on his own!!
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