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Government is taking appropriate steps as the era of driverless cars approaches

Driverless cars have been a dream for decades, and we’re finally beginning to see the dividends of intensive research.

Indeed, the new technology holds tremendous possibilities. It may not be as bold as the flying cars depicted on “The Jetsons,” but the changes could lead to safer roads and a healthier environment.

Federal auto safety regulators recently made clear their approval of automated vehicles. Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, said highly automated vehicles “will save time, money and lives.”

President Obama echoed that statement in an op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Right now, too many people died on our roads – 35,200 last year alone – with 94 percent of those the result of human error or choice.”

Obama has proposed spending $4 billion over 10 years to advance the technology.

Some advocates, such as the co-founder and CEO of the ride service Lyft, refer to driverless or autonomous cars as freedom. It might certainly feel that way to elderly and disabled citizens. And it might make that long, unbearable commute, while it is not exactly a problem around here, a little more tolerable.

Driverless cars have already started hitting the road, at least in limited trials. Semiautonomous cars are already being sold to average consumers, although some technologies call for above-average incomes for now.

Semiautonomous features include self-parking, automatic braking in an emergency and automatic lane changing. The driver is still in control and needs to remain alert. Driverless cars, on the other hand, leave the car to the computer. Because the computer will not get aggressive, drunk or distracted, crashes should go down.

As with new technologies, the price will come down and more people will take advantage of it.

The federal government is trying to catch up by issuing new guidelines, just short of official regulations. The guidelines include a 15-point safety standard for the design and development of autonomous vehicles, a call for states to devise uniform policies applying to driverless cars and clarification on the manner in which current regulations can be applied to driverless cars.

It also left the door ajar for new regulations. And that’s good. America needs uniform and adequately strong regulation as technology speeds ahead. Safely, we hope.

Safety is the ultimate goal, which means that deaths involving early adopters will make headlines. Back in May, a Florida driver was killed while in a Tesla equipped with a self-driving feature known as Autopilot. Autopilot uses radar and cameras to help a computer steer the car. Last month there was a report of another Tesla crash in China where the technology was apparently turned on and the car ran into the back of a truck. The Tesla driver also was killed.

Tesla is updating its Autopilot software so it gives more weight to radar rather than cameras. Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive who has launched a bid to buy SolarCity, says that change should make crashes less likely.

Tesla does not have this new lane to itself. Uber started testing driverless cars for customers in Pittsburgh. Lyft unveiled its “The Road Ahead” 10-year plan on the website Medium. It envisions autonomous driving, plus a subscription-based model on the scale of Netflix. Ford is betting on fully autonomous vehicles by 2021, ideal for the company’s ride-sharing plans. General Motors and Mercedes-Benz are in the game. Google is testing self-driving cars and rumors abound about Apple.

The technology will be here soon. Government regulators need to be prepared with oversight that will both protect the public and facilitate advances in the technology.

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