Surely we’ve all fantasized about hopping in our car, pressing a button or two and proceeding to watch in wonder as our car navigates itself down the highway. It may sound like something out of The Jetsons, but this fantasy might not be too far from reality.
Manufacturers and researchers have made some serious strides in the development of driverless cars in recent years. As the likelihood of prevalent driverless vehicles on American roads has become more and more real, the private sector and the federal regulatory agencies appear to have taken note.
Just last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it would consider eliminating certain regulations currently in place that may act as “unnecessary regulatory barriers to automated safety technologies.” This move signals the possibility the Trump administration intends to fundamentally alter the regulatory framework in the auto industry, helping to make way for self-driving vehicles.
Critics say these regulations aren’t simply barriers but safeguards for the public welfare. Some of the targeted regulations include those requiring vehicles to be designed for operation by a human driver or those requiring the vehicle brake pedals to be operated by the driver’s foot. Proponents of deregulation in this area, such as Waymo (the autonomous vehicle unit of conglomerate and Google parent company, Alphabet, Inc.), General Motors and Volvo view it as a potential victory for technological innovation.
Across the pond in the United Kingdom, British Finance Minister Philip Hammond recently announced the intent to allocate massive amounts of funding to facilitate research into artificial intelligence for such vehicles and to fund certain infrastructure projects aimed at having driverless cars in regular use on British roads by 2021. This came in the wake of British manufacturer, Jaguar Land Rover’s first tests of driverless cars on public roads last week.
International ride-sharing app and corporation, Uber, who already has teamed up with Volvo in the last year to invest in driverless vehicle technology took things a step further. In an effort to grow its driverless fleet, this week Uber announced a $1.4 billion agreement with Volvo to purchase 24,000 of its XC90 SUVs between 2019 and 2021.
Like any burgeoning technology, its expansion won’t be without some hiccups or growing pains. Cities like Tempe, AZ and Pittsburgh, PA have partnered with Uber and driverless car manufacturers to designate certain areas of their cities as a de facto testing ground for driverless cars, systems and infrastructure. These partnerships have been met with mixed reviews about the benefits actually realized for the cities and concerns about safety.
Many in Pittsburgh have grown disillusioned with Uber’s efforts in their failure to deliver on certain promises and in refusing to share data collected by their driverless cars. Uber even temporarily halted its driverless operations in Tempe in March amid concerns following a crash involving one of its self-driving cars. Earlier this month, a self-driving shuttle on the Las Vegas strip had an inauspicious debut, as it was involved in a collision mere hours after it was first launched – although it was quickly noted the accident was caused by another (human) driver.
While it’s easy to point to a few incidents and conclude driverless cars are no safer than the average Joe getting behind the wheel, proponents believe that in the long run driverless vehicles will be instrumental in making our roads – and driving in general – far safer. NHTSA data collected from 2005 to 2007 indicates that roughly 93.5% of all auto accidents were caused by “driver-related reasons” including speeding, not paying attention, overcorrecting or such reasons as falling asleep at the wheel or driving impaired.
Some say that technology these days evolves and grows at an exponential rate. Where the evolution and growth of driverless goes from here could be anyone’s guess. However, safe money would be with the proposition that as the public and private sectors continue to try to work hand-in-hand in encouraging and developing this technology, the driverless car movement won’t simply be a flash-in-the-pan. As the technology develops, we may one day be called upon to change the way we look at the car and driver relationship and transportation in general.