The US government now confirms: There might be something to this whole "self-driving" thing. As you were.
Catching up at least rhetorically with the state of the art automotive self-guiding technology, the US Transportation Department has made its first policy statement on autonomous vehicles andpronounced them good—for the most part. It said that driverless cars should not yet be allowed except for testing but that semiautonomous features already in widespread use preventing accidents in thousands of today's vehicles are, well... good for safety.
The department will continue to monitor their progress to make sure they stay good for safety. "Whether we're talking about automated features in cars today or fully automated vehicles of the future, our top priority is to ensure these vehicles—and their occupants—are safe," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Of course, Google has been testing driverless cars heavily, and nearly every automaker isworking on them too. Many car brands already have fielded vehicles, at least on the high end, that utilize a number of semi-autonomous features such as lane-departure warning lights, little kinetic nudges of the driver to keep them awake, self-distancing radar-controlled cruise settings and even self-parking. Acknowledging that it would be difficult to get those cats back into the bag, the government statement detailed the benefits of these features as if to say: We get it.
"It's not that they're trying to put the brakes on it," Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., toldTheNew York Times. "They're trying to get out in front of it."
But in that case, driverless cars are acquiring a bit of the momentum of a runaway train. No one predicts a truly autonomous car is right around the corner, but it's certainly technologically feasible within a few years. Along the way, governments, auto makers and digital players such as Google will have to tackle a host of issues—and safety certainly will be foremost among them. For that reason, some speculate that while the US statement might not slow development of automated safety systems, federal regulators remain uncomfortable with driverless cars like Google's prototype. Greater safety, of course, is one of the main objectives of increasingly autonomous vehicles that take driving decisions out of the hands and minds of "flawed" humans.
But "the first time that a driverless vehicle swerves to avoid a shopping cart and hits a stroller, someone is going to write, 'robot car kills baby to save groceries,'" Ryan Cato, a driverless-car expert at the University of Washington, told the Times.
Overall at this point, the government concluded, "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."