Driverless cars got a huge boost Thursday, when the Obama administration announced a $4 billion program meant to help the industry get more autonomous cars safely on the road.
"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," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.
Roadblocks in the path of driverless cars
In the past, I've been skeptical about the idea of cars tooling down the road without drivers, but the backing from the feds, and GM's plan to invest $500 million in Lyft (in part for the development of self-driving cars), make it clear that the future of driving is closer than many of us thought.
Of course, many issues still need to be resolved — some technical, some legal, and some cultural — and in an interesting coincidence, Google released a related report this week that shows why self-driving cars aren't quite ready to hit the roads.
Google's report says that in California, between September 2014 and November 2015, test drivers in its self-driving vehicles had to take control over the autonomous cars — an event known as a "disengagement"— 341 times. After analyzing the voluminous data collected by each vehicle, Google determined that 13 of those incidents would have resulted in accidents; 10 would have been the fault of the cars' guidance systems, and the rest would have been caused by other drivers.
It's worth noting that the cars drove many thousands of miles, albeit under test conditions, so those numbers may not be as bad as they sound.
U.S. government gets behind autonomous vehicles
The $4 billion set aside in the proposed federal budget for 2017 will be used for pilot programs in specific transportation corridors in the United States. The government plans to work with industry leaders to jump start self-driving technology and increase the deployment of the cars.
Secretary Foxx said the 10-year program includes funding for technologically connected roads, which will help test self-driving cars. He provided few other details on how the money would be spent if the request for funding is approved.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also plans to work with state governments and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators during the next six months to develop state regulations for self-driving cars.
The latter point could be contentious. California, for instance, recently ruled that self-driving vehicles must have licensed drivers on board when operated on public roads. The regulation annoyed Google, which claims the rule will slow development, but I think the state made a smart move.
As driverless car performance and safety improve, regulations like the one in California can be dialed back. I understand Google's frustration, but the company is missing an important point. A serious accident involving a driverless car would shape public opinion and could set the entire program back many years.