WASHINGTON (AP) — Cars that drive themselves may hold the potential to save thousands of lives, an Obama administration safety official said Tuesday, as the government prepares to launch a research initiative to determine the safety and reliability of automated driving technologies.
Automated vehicles are the next "evolutionary step" in car technology, David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told an industry gathering sponsored by Swedish automaker Volvo and the Swedish Embassy in Washington. He said his agency has held extensive discussions with automakers and Google about what needs to happen before automated cars can be safely introduced to consumers.
"Automated vehicles offer an important and challenging method for reducing crash risk that we believes holds great promise," Strickland said. He noted that human error was a factor in about 90 percent of the over 33,000 traffic deaths recorded in 2010. "We have the chance of ... saving thousands and thousands of lives as" cars in use today are replaced with automated vehicles, he said.
Google is developing a fleet of automated vehicles. Most auto manufacturers are moving in that direction as well. Three states — Nevada, Florida and California — have authorized testing of automated cars on their roads. Legislation has been proposed in several other states and the District of Columbia.
The kinds of automated cars Google and most automakers envision eventually bringing to market involve the driver ceding control of the vehicle to its computers — feet off the pedals and hands off the wheel — but still remaining ready to retake control if necessary, Strickland said. That means the driver would need to monitor the vehicle and what's going on outside it.
In a fully-automated vehicle, the driver would program a destination into the car's computers, but would not be expected to control the vehicle, he said.
"We know of no such vehicle being designed for civilian highway use at this time, but at some time in the future this may be the logical outcome for all the current efforts that are underway by manufacturers and other non-automotive company providers," Strickland said.
He declined to say when the government might propose safety standards for automated cars. Setting such standards would require the government to fundamentally rethink the way it evaluates auto safety, he said.