As Gov't Considers Regulations, Autonomous Car Boosters Show Off Plans

Google executives show off a self-driving car. January 20, 2011

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) It’s the heart of the morning commute. A professional pulls his laptop computer from his brief case and begins typing emails to start his work day before arriving at the office. Minutes later the laptop is set aside for the newspaper, opened wide in front of his face so he can leisurely peruse the headlines. This scene plays out on mass transit systems every morning. It would be impossible while driving a car unless one is gifted with extra pairs of hands and eyes.

In the not-too-distant future, however, drivers who now grit their teeth while gripping the steering wheel may be able to sit back, relax, and use their car commuting time productively.

Three states, Florida, California and Nevada, have legalized testing of autonomous cars already and today, the federal government made a small show of support. “The development of automated vehicles is a worthy goal,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland told a  forum in Washington. He said the government is beginning to research what safety regulations are needed for a world where cars drive themselves.

Designers of self-driving – or autonomous – vehicles are promising the technology is moving closer to reality, creating a future where crashes, speeding tickets, congestion, poor fuel efficiency, and all the stress they cause will be history.

“It gives you the freedom to do what you are already doing in the car today but unsafely.  Today people sit in the car and they are texting. We have seen people on the freeway practicing the trombone. It is unbelievable what people do in a car,” said Chris Urmson, the leader of Google’s self-driving vehicle project based in California, who spoke at a seminar on the policy implications of autonomous vehicles at the Swedish embassy in Washington on Tuesday.

The seminar’s host, Volvo, a leader in autonomous vehicle research, tests its cars in Sweden and Spain. Google tests its cars in stop-and-go traffic in San Francisco as well as freeways in the Bay Area and Nevada.

Self-driving vehicles are years from becoming commonplace on U.S. roads, so it is impossible to fully grasp the dimensions of the changes that would be caused by the technology. Because the cars are being designed to navigate traffic more safely and smoothly than any human being can, developers see a future with fewer crashes and traffic violations and with dramatically reduced congestion. That would affect car insurers, law enforcement, safety regulators, and transportation planners.

“If you look at the carrying capacity of U.S. freeways when they are at maximum throughput – the most vehicles moving by per hour – they are only using about 8 percent of the road,” Urmson said. “If you imagine a vehicle that is reacting more quickly and steering more accurately than a person, then you can pack those vehicles more closely and you can take the same infrastructure we have today and easily double the throughput on it, removing congestion completely.”

More efficient use of existing highways would ease the pressure to build new ones, allowing planners to focus finite resources on other pressing infrastructure needs, Urmson said. In practice, congestion is unlikely to vanish for any technological reason, even if capacity is increased; research consistently finds that new drivers take to the roads once traffic time drops and over time, similar congestion levels resume.

Still, the promise of driver-less cars could brig many benefits. Future motorists would not have to relinquish complete control of their cars. They would have a choice between driving themselves or letting the computers, radar, laser, and image processing technology do it for them.

“It’s no fun to be in traffic jams at all,” said Peter Mertens, a senior vice president at Volvo, referring to a scenario when drivers might be happy to let the auto-pilot take over. “But when you are on a highway maybe you really enjoy driving.”

The primary goal of autonomous vehicles is saving lives by reducing the staggering number of traffic fatalities that happen in the U.S.  Relieving congestion is one way to make driving safer.

“[Autonomous vehicles] can be closer together and they can be optimized in the way they drive. You have a very smooth flowing traffic flow and no ups and downs and radical changes,” Mertens said.

Neither Mertens nor Urmson was able to estimate what a self-driving vehicle might cost compared to a regular car, but they said the technology is likely to be introduced into the U.S. vehicle fleet incrementally. Volvo and other carmakers already install adaptable cruise control in some vehicles, for instance.

Transferring driving responsibility from a person to a machine will raise legal issues. What if an autonomous car malfunctions and crashes or just violates a traffic law? To whom would a police officer write a ticket? Google is already in talks with U.S. regulators about it's autonomous car technology.

“If there is a malfunction, we have pretty established law about what that means,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford Law School. “A manufacturer or anyone else who is responsible for the malfunction will pay. The more difficult question about automated vehicles is what actually constitutes a malfunction.”

If autonomous vehicles actually do avoid crashes, auto insurers would have to adjust their rates, he said, potentially charging lower premiums to drivers who use the new technology.

“The hope in the long, long term is that insurance goes down as crashes go down. What that also means is that manufacturers end up paying a greater share of crash costs, then you could see prices for the car or navigation services increase.”