Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Feds Try to Stay Ahead of the Rise of the Robo-Car

Feds Try to Stay Ahead of the Rise of the Robo-Car:

Image: Audi

Google and several automakers are creating a future in which we’ll cede control and let the robot drive. It’s a brave new autonomous world, with Google having logged over 300,000 miles in its fleet of autonomous hybrids, and Audi, BMW and General Motors all racing to bringing the technology to market. But with great changes comes greater regulation, and after recent legislation making autonomous cars legal in California, Nevada and Florida, federal regulators are attempting to stay ahead of the rapid rise of the robo-car.
At a forum in Washington, D.C., NHTSA Administrator David Strickland laid out the agency’s wide-ranging and far-reaching intentions to implement testing and ultimately draft rules for autonomous vehicles. And at an event in Detroit last week, NHTSA’s director of crash avoidance and electronic controls research, Tim Johnson, announced that the agency will conduct a two- to three-year, $1.75 million research project in conjunction with Virginia Tech to study the real-world implications of autonomous vehicle technology.
In his remarks, Strickland said “automated vehicle technologies have the potential to transform the way we look at transportation and highway safety,” but added that developing testing and regulations for self-driving cars is “a challenge” since the agency would largely be starting from scratch. He acknowledged that autonomous cars have the “potential to change not only the way that vehicles operate, but also the way we at NHTSA regulate them. Most of NHTSA’s safety standards assume the need for a human driver to operate required safety equipment,” he said. “A vehicle that drives itself challenges this basic assumption.”
Hence the research project with Virginia Tech, and the urgency in getting it underway, even though autonomous vehicles aren’t expected to hit the market for years at least two years. “That is the work we are starting up right now,” Johnson told Automotive News last week, saying that the agency is “putting a high priority on this. We are trying to figure this out,” he said.
Strickland delineated self-driving technology into three separate categories – and by doing so gave an idea of how far NHSTA is looking down the road. “Monitored Automation involves shared authority: The driver cedes primary control, but is still responsible for monitoring and safe operation,” he said. An example is a system like Cadillac’s upcoming “Super Cruise” system that combines lane centering with adaptive cruise control for what Strickland called “‘Hands-off’ and ‘feet-off’ driving, but is still ‘eyes-on’ driving. The driver must continually monitor the road and traffic,” he added.
The next category was what he called “Conditionally Automated” driving. “The driver can cede full control authority under certain traffic and environmental conditions, but is expected to be available for occasional control,” he said. An example of this is Google’s self-driving technology, he said. “Here it’s ‘hands-off,’ ‘feet-off,’ and ‘eyes-off’ until the driver or the vehicle decides that it’s time for the driver to resume control,” Strickland added.
The third is a “Fully Automated” mode. “The driver provides destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control,” Strickland explained. “Responsibility for safe operation rests solely on the automated systems. We know of no such vehicle being designed for civilian highway use at this time,” he added, “but at some time in the future this may be the logical outcome of the many efforts at automation currently underway.” He also said that NHTSA sees self-driving technology, “along a continuum that balances the roles of the driver and the machine, culminating in fully automated driving.”

Image: Google
But Strickland also acknowledged that the agency is entering uncharted territory in terms of how to test and regulate self-driving technology. “Automated vehicles offer an important and challenging new method for reducing crash risk that we believe holds great promise,” he said. “The question is what we should be doing in terms of research and demonstrations to ensure that this new technology is responsibly entering the market and is ready for the unexpected. We must anticipate, for example, how automated and non-automated vehicles will respond to each other.  We must take care so as not to create unintended negative consequences that could affect the public’s confidence in the technology.”
He also said that “NHTSA has been having extensive discussions with Google” as well as with automakers about plans to deploy autonomous driving cars and issues that the agency believes will be important to their safe introduction. According to Strickland, challenges for the agency include “understanding and evaluating driver behavior in these vehicles, developing performance requirements for the highly complex potential crash environments that they will encounter, and ensuring that the systems – including sensors, maps, and software, etc. – are effective and reliable.”
To do so, NHTSA has developed a Motor Vehicle Automation Roadmap that incorporates automated technology into the same category as other vehicle safety systems in a bid to research the reliability and security of the software, along with its affect on drivers.
Strickland also attempted to address the legal morass that many believe will be the biggest obstacle to large-scale acceptance of self-driving technology.
“State highway safety programs overwhelmingly focus on preventing driver behaviors that are deemed unsafe such as speeding or impaired driving,” he said. “When a crash occurs today, we can usually determine largely through physical examination what factors contributed to it. This determination may be much more difficult when control of the vehicle seamlessly transitions from the driver to the vehicle and its increasingly interconnected and intelligent electronic vehicle crash avoidance and mitigation systems. It is likely that NHTSA’s regulations may have to evolve to address these aspects of automated vehicles,” he added.
In addition to the potential to reduce crashed and save lives, Strickland also pointed out the benefits of self-driving technology in reducing traffic and emissions, noting how automated driving complements the vehicle-to-vehicle communication research NHSTA is currently conducting in a year-long field trial in Ann Arbor. “Fusing V2V communications with increasing levels of vehicle automation could result in the most dramatic safety improvements in our nation’s driving history,” he said. “That’s why we think we are on the brink of an amazing era in automotive safety.”

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