Autonomous cars by 2019?

-April 08, 2014

Just last year, the NHTSA announced the US DOT’s policy on Automated Vehicle Development.  On the NHTSA’s website, they quoted then-Administrator David Strickland:  "We're encouraged by the new automated vehicle technologies being developed and implemented today, but want to ensure that motor vehicle safety is considered in the development of these advances.  As additional states consider similar legislation, our recommendations provide lawmakers with the tools they need to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated vehicle technology."  Mr. Strickland resigned in December 2013 to join the Washington DC law firm Venable LLP.

In contrast, the FAA seems to be taking its time on UAS (unmanned aerial systems—commonly known as drones) regulation, reaching out to NASA for help. The FAA says “The FAA has been working with its government partners to streamline COA procedures.  In 2009, the FAA, NASA and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security formed a UAS Executive Committee, or “ExCom” to address UAS integration issues.”  It would not surprise me if some of you are thinking “hmm, that’s another layer of bureaucracy on top of four additional government bureaucracies.” 

The Center for Internet & Society (CIS) at Stanford University maintains a Wiki page tracking regulations at state level for autonomous (automated) vehicles.  The map in Figure 1 was on the CIS Wiki as of April 2, 2014.

Figure 1  Center for Internet & Society graphic showing the status of legislation related to automation in vehicles.  Image from the CIS Wiki site.

On the same page, the CIS has listings of about 40 pieces of legislation in various states; for instance, they cite California Senate Bill 1298 as concluding “that the state ‘presently does not prohibit or specifically regulate the operation of autonomous vehicles’ but requires rulemaking before 2015” among other aspects of the legislation.  

Design News’ Senior Technical Editor Charles Murray reported on the recent Keynote Address to EE Live by Michael Barr, founder and CTO of Barr Group, entitled “KILLER APPS: Embedded Software's Greatest Hit Jobs.”  Mr. Barr’s firm provides expert testimony, among other services, relating to accidents caused by bad software.  Murray quoted Barr as expressing concerns about safety of autonomous vehicles, with Barr saying in his address “How do we make our systems safer? Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix.”

Concerns like these might explain Google’s apparent ramp up of lobbying.  Figure 2 shows Google’s spending since 2003, as reported by OpenSecrets.org

Figure 2  Reported spending by Google, Inc. on lobbying by year.  Chart from OpenSecrets.org.

Over a year ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on Google’s spend and linked at least some of it to Google’s promotion of autonomous vehicles.  Last month Ambreen Ali reported on ozy.com that restrictive legislation could be a wild card in when more advanced technologies get to the public.  Ms. Ali quoted Google spokesperson Brad Stertz as saying “From a technology standpoint, it could be five years.  How the regulations evolve, what’s permitted and what’s not permitted will have a huge role in when it finally comes to market, and that’s hard to predict.”

While Google’s work on self-driving cars grabs a lot of headlines, the NHTSA guidelines address many levels of automation.  If you think about it, there are many systems within vehicles today that can be classified as at least somewhat automated.  Adaptive cruise control is a good example; some systems use radar and other methods to help keep a safe distance around the vehicle while maintaining the desired speed.  Another more visible example is automatic parking or parking assist.  Most vehicle makers are pushing these features down into lower priced models.  Ford showed hands-free parking and obstacle avoidance at the LA Auto Show last November (see the concept in Figure 3).  In their materials on Active Park Assist, Ford describes the system as having ultrasonic sensors and electric power-assisted steering (EPAS).


Figure 3  Ford’s Edge Concept car from the 2013 LA Auto Show featured Active Park Assist and Obstacle Avoidance.  Image adapted from Ford’s media site.

The challenge of parking in a crowded parking structure is also being addressed by automation; Audi demonstrated a system last year that can park a car in a garage by itself, and be controlled by a smartphone app (see Figure 4).

Figure 4  Audi’s Piloted Parking Demonstrator.  Image adapted from Audi’s site.

The list of automated systems in cars goes on and on: anti-lock braking, tire pressure sensors, four wheel steering, driver awareness alarms, collision avoidance, blind spot warning, rear view cameras, and so on.  Not all of these systems are obvious concerns for safety legislation, but the fact is that a tremendous amount of automation has built up in cars over decades, with self-driving cars being an obvious endpoint.  As engineers, for our part, we owe it to the public to design safe and effective systems.  Let’s hope the folks in government get their part right.

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