The Obama administration will budget nearly $4 billion over the next 10 years to steer driverless car technology on the road to viability, safety and acceptance, it announced Thursday. It believes autonomous vehicles will cut traffic deaths, ease traffic and improve the environment — not to mention be a boon for Google, Tesla and other tech companies working with a scrambling Detroit to develop them.
“After years of taking a cautionary — some would say prohibitive — approach to the technology, the administration appears ready to embrace what automakers and the tech industry have long seen as inevitable: a world where self-driving cars are the norm, not the outlier,” observes Politico’s Heather Cagle.
“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement released in conjunction with his announcement at the Detroit Auto Show. “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.”
Getting to that point, though, means mapping out a national plan that the states will follow.
“To date, self-driving car rules are set by states, leaving the carmakers and tech companies experimenting with smart cars to deal with multiple (and sometimes unpredictable) statehouses,” points out Re/code’s Mark Bergen. In fact, in turns out, “in an interview with Re/code last week, Secretary Foxx said that national rules would be arriving soon and suggested that they may move to override some state proposals.”
Right now, “seven states and Washington, D.C., allow autonomous vehicle testing on their roads, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The federal government isn't predicting when autonomous cars will be on public roads in big numbers, but Google and others have said they could be in use in limited areas by 2020,” according to an AP report.
“The Department of Transportation will enable the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow up to 2,500 of these autonomous vehicles on public roads for up to two years, and exempt them from certain safety standards, such as requiring a driver, steering wheel and pedals,” reports Bryan Clark for The Next Web.
“Automakers applauded the Obama administration's funding declaration as a major step toward the widespread debut of autonomous vehicles, reports Samantha Masunaga for the Los Angeles Times. But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, is looking for more details about safety issues, she writes.
“The sort of hidden message of this, I believe, is ‘get out of the road, here come autonomous vehicles,’” he said. “Well, it's just not that easy.”
There are other challenges ahead besides getting state legislatures to comply with the dreaded feds, convincing advocates to get with the program, and ironing out the legalities of who’s at fault when two robotic vehicles collide. Namely, we the people, creatures of habit that we are.
“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 proved by test vehicles all over the nation,” writes Ashley Halsey III in the Washington Post. “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 on it is just as safe, or even safer.”
Indeed, “What I want to know is just who thinks it's a good idea to take all the fun out of having a vehicle by making self-driving cars?,” writes Penny Weaver, editor of the Matoon (Ill.) Journal Gazette/Times-Courier, in a call to disarming the bots earlier this week. “Resist some of this technology. It's going to make us all dumb and helpless,” she urges. “As it is, I don't remember phone numbers anymore because my phone dials them for me once they are programmed in. I don't have to memorize email addresses for the same reason.”
Ah, yes. And whydoncha bring back rotary phone and the Rolodex while you’re at it …?