Autonomous vehicles, commonly known as driverless cars, have been portrayed in futuristic movies for years. And dating nearly 100 years, automakers have experimented periodically with various vehicles not needing drivers.
But what once was Hollywood fantasy is now on the not-too-distant horizon. Directors’ imaginations could be the daily driving reality for soccer moms and traveling salesmen.
In recent years, major carmakers — BMW to Volvo to Toyota — and technology monoliths like Google have ramped up their driverless car research. They’re testing driverless technology at least in part via new legislation in several states allowing the testing of autonomous cars on public roads.
The new driverless technology, most notably unveiled in prototypes by Audi and BMW at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), was more streamlined. Once bulky sensors and computers utilizing the entire trunk capacity are now appreciably more compact.
Nevada, Florida and California in 2012 were respectively the first three states permitting the testing of autonomous cars. Michigan joined the new fraternity in 2013, and like its counterparts, Michigan’s new law requires a human in the driver’s seat while the vehicle is in operation. The Nevada law began was effective March 1, 2012 after Google had long lobbied for the legislation. Florida and California followed in quick order.
Driverless transportation for the general public is likely still years away — seven to 10 years, according to some advocates. But government agencies and transportation experts haven’t taken the ramifications — good and bad — lightly.
“We’re encouraged by the new automated vehicle technologies being developed and implemented today, but want to ensure that motor vehicle safety is considered in the development of these advances,” said David Strickland of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). “As additional states consider similar legislation, our recommendations provide lawmakers with the tools they need to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated vehicle technology.”
In addition to defining different categories of autonomous vehicles, the NHTSA has identified the potential benefits and hazards to driverless cars.
Potential advantages include: fewer traffic collisions, increased road capacity, reduced traffic congestion, less road signage and reduction of occupants’ constraints — age to impairments.
Cyber security, software reliability, liability responsibilities, loss of drivers’ jobs in various industries, increased government regulations and legal ramifications are among the potential driverless car obstacles identified the NHTSA.
“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 Ray LaHood, the former NHTSA Secretary. “Our research covers all levels of automation, including advances like automatic braking that may save lives in the near term, while the recommendations to states help them better oversee self-driving vehicle development, which holds promising long-term safety benefits.”