Self-driving cars being developed by Google Inc. and some automakers are getting a lift from U.S. auto-safety regulators eager to accelerate automation that they predict could prevent many crashes.
Transportation Department regulators May 30 released a policy intended to advance testing of self-driving cars and to encourage development of precursor technologies, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems and brakes that apply themselves when a crash is sensed to be imminent.
“We see tremendous promise in these technologies whether you’re looking at the current active safety systems in some vehicles today or whether you’re looking at a truly autonomous vehicle,” David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an interview.
“These require clearly vigorous testing plans, and it’s happening on public roads. We want to make sure from the state standpoint that they know things they should look at.”
Regulators are eager to reap the safety benefits that may come from taking human error out of driving. Last year, about 34,000 people died on U.S. roads, a 5.3 percent increase following six years of declines.
Using vehicle-to-vehicle, short-range communication technology could prevent, or reduce in severity, as many as 80 percent of crashes involving non-impaired drivers, NHTSA has said. About a third of highway fatalities are alcohol-related.
NHTSA’s policy may put it in conflict with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which is pushing for broader Wi-Fi use in airwaves near those allocated since 1999 to car-to-car wireless communications.
Two automotive trade groups this week urged the FCC not to allow the spectrum to be shared without thorough testing, saying the move risks jamming accident-prevention technology that may cost as little as $100 per vehicle and save thousands of lives annually.
“V2V safety technologies have the potential to significantly reduce automobile crash fatalities and injuries on our highways,” Mike Stanton, chief executive officer of the Association of Global Automakers, said in a May 28 statement after the Washington-based group filed comments with the FCC.
The trade group is joined in its opposition to adding users to the Wi-Fi spectrum by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Earlier, automakers and suppliers including Delphi Automotive Plc, Denso Corp. and Robert Bosch GmbH, signed a letter to then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski protesting his plans for the new Wi-Fi spectrum.
NHTSA’s policy outlines ways states, which are responsible for licensing drivers, could promote the experimental use of self-driving cars. The agency’s recommendations follow laws passed in California, Florida and Nevada that let Google test its vehicles.
The Washington-based agency also said it’s looking at whether to require, or use incentives, to increase the use of other safety technologies, such as automatic braking before a crash and systems that allow cars to communicate with each other to avoid collisions.
"We don’t have a preference,” Strickland said. “Everything is on the table. The goal is safety. We’ll use whatever tools are available within the agency’s authority.”
Regulators see the connected-vehicle technology as a building block to the fully automated cars being pursued by automakers and technology companies including Mountain View, California-based Google. Auto manufacturers including General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen AG’s Audi luxury unit have said they’re working on autonomous vehicles.
“GM has been working hard on autonomous vehicle technologies because we believe in its safety potential to avoid crashes and save more lives,” Heather Rosenker, a GM spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “We are encouraged that NHTSA recognizes greater regulatory consistency and industry collaboration can help put these technologies on the road quicker.”
GM, based in Detroit, is testing a Cadillac with “Super Cruise” technology that automates steering, braking and lane centering while driving on a highway in good conditions. The company plans to produce the system by the end of the decade.
GM is also working with Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, to develop more automated-driving technologies following the creation of a joint lab in 2008.
Google retrofits cars to create its autonomous vehicles. It has been working on its project since 2009 and earlier this year hired Ron Medford, then deputy NHTSA administrator, to be safety director of its self-driving car project.
“We are introducing autonomous-vehicle technology to improve people’s lives by making driving safer, more enjoyable, and more efficient,” Jay Nancarrow, a Google spokesman, said. “We have already driven over a half million miles and expect the technology to continue to progress rapidly.”
NHTSA has been testing connected-vehicle technology in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on almost 3,000 cars, trucks and buses. The Transportation Department, which includes NHTSA, has spent millions of research dollars developing the technology in partnership with the auto industry, and regulators may decide by the end of this year whether to require it in new vehicles.
In the 14-page policy, NHTSA said it plans more testing of the steps toward vehicle automation. The research would include how drivers of autonomous vehicles would react to a car that they’re not controlling and how to keep such cars safe from hackers intent on causing harm.
Autonomous vehicles can be driven under certain conditions in the three states that have passed laws permitting their use. In its policy, NHTSA says it wants to minimize confusion and disarray among states seeking to promote self-driving cars.
Because it supports the technology and sees safety benefits, NHTSA wants to make sure consumers accept automation in their vehicles, Strickland said.
“You only have one chance to make a great first impression,” he said. “While there are a lot of people excited about this technology, there will always be questions about whether they’re safe and what manufacturers have done and what the federal government has done.”