Cars that drive themselves may hold the potential to save thousands of lives, a US government safety official said, as the Obama administration prepares to launch an initiative to determine the safety and reliability of automated driving technologies.
Automated vehicles are the next "evolutionary step" in car technology, David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told an industry gathering in Washington. He said his agency had held discussions with carmakers and Google about what needed to happen before automated cars could be safely introduced to consumers. Google has been closely involved in developing driverless technology.
"Automated vehicles offer an important and challenging method for reducing crash risk that we believe holds great promise," Strickland said. He noted that human error was a factor in about 90 per cent of the 33,000 traffic deaths in the US in 2010. "We have the chance of ... saving thousands and thousands of lives as" cars in use today are replaced with automated vehicles, he said.
Google is developing a fleet of automated vehicles, and most manufacturers are moving in that direction as well. Three US states - Nevada, Florida and California - have authorised testing of automated cars on their roads. Legislation has been proposed in several other states and the District of Columbia.
The kinds of automated cars Google and most carmakers envision eventually bringing to market involve the driver ceding control of the vehicle to its computers - feet off the pedals and hands off the wheel - but still remaining ready to retake control if necessary. Strickland said that meant the driver would need to monitor the vehicle and what was going on outside it.
In a fully automated vehicle, the driver would programme a destination into the car's computers, but would not be expected to control the vehicle, he said.
"We know of no such vehicle being designed for civilian highway use at this time, but at some time in the future this may be the logical outcome for all the current efforts that are under way by manufacturers and other non-automotive company providers," Strickland said.
He declined to say when the government might propose safety standards for automated cars. Setting such standards would require the government to fundamentally rethink the way it evaluates vehicle safety, he said.
Key questions will be whether the software in automated cars will be able to handle complicated driving situations and whether there will always need to be a human driver paying attention and ready to step in.
Besides reducing traffic deaths, automated cars may be an alternative for people like the elderly and the blind whose mobility is limited because they do not drive.