Autonomous Cars Driving Innovation

By Jon Anzur

Imagine a city devoid of stop lights, where parks replace parking lots, car collisions are rare, and traffic tickets are artifacts that remind us how inconvenient driving once was.

Thanks to the advent of driverless cars, which communicate with other cars via built-in sensors, cameras and radars, this futuristic city is no longer just fodder for science fiction, but a fast-approaching reality.

A recent New York Times article explains that Google, Audi, Toyota, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz are working to make autonomous autos commonplace, perhaps as soon as the next decade, leading researchers and city planners to contemplate the many benefits this technology could confer on urban life.

Yet, driverless cars have also caught the attention of the federal government, marking the latest example of the tenuous balance between innovation and regulation.

Google began experimenting with driverless technology in 2010, when it took seven test cars 1,000 miles without human intervention. Since then, its fleet has traveled more than 435,000 miles without a single crash. Compare that to the roughly 33,000 fatal crashes that occurred in 2010 alone and it’s not hard to see why so many people are excited about this technology. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 93 percent of car crashes result from human error. Developers of driverless cars think that their innovations could drastically decrease that number.

The benefits of automation go beyond making society safer. Researchers claim that driverless cars, with their built-in vehicle-to-vehicle communication sensors, will dictate traffic flow, making traffic lights largely irrelevant. Cars will be able to drive through cities without stopping, thus reducing congestion and fuel costs. And people will no longer need to search for parking, which accounts for 30 percent of driving in business districts, because cars will park themselves.

Companies and universities are not far from developing the technology needed to realize these goals. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a nonprofit trade association, predicts that 75 percent of cars will be driverless by 2040, and experts expect a fully autonomous car to be available for purchase at the end of the decade.

Several states have taken steps to encourage autonomous vehicle innovation. In the past two years, California, Florida, and Nevada passed legislation allowing autonomous vehicles and establishing safety and performance standards. The California law, for example, mandates that a person be seated in the driver’s seat in case the autonomous system fails, and that driverless cars pass a series of certifications set forth by the Department of the California Highway Patrol before use. New Jersey is currently considering similar legislation.

But in May, the federal government invoked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) power to regulate vehicle safety to limit tests of driverless cars and forbid their sale. The NHTSA offered recommendations that are broad and indefinite because, as the agency notes in its report, “At this point, it is too soon to reach conclusions about the feasibility of producing a vehicle that can solely operate in a fully automated (or ‘driverless’) mode in all driving environments and traffic scenarios.”

With this veil of uncertainty shrouding their judgment, it is important that federal agencies exercise caution in issuing regulations that would inhibit states’ or manufacturers’ abilities to foster autonomous vehicle innovation at this early stage of the technology’s lifespan.