5 Things to Know About Driverless Cars

Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...

By Michaela Ross

Oct. 12 — Before automakers can start selling Americans self-driving cars, they'll have to educate a lot of potential buyers about them.

Uber Technologies Inc., Volvo AB and Tesla Motors Inc. have already deployed some self-driving technologies. The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced recommendations for automated vehicles in an effort to strengthen safety standards and guide states in formulating their own policies. The DOT policy includes a 15-point safety assessment for the design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles.

But six in ten U.S. consumers admit knowing little to nothing about autonomous vehicles, according to a recent report by Kelley Blue Book, a pricing guide for new and used cars. About as many consumers do not think they will live to see a world in which every vehicle on a highway is driving itself. As a world full of driverless cars draws closer, here are five things to know:

Powered by Tech

While cars without drivers can sound like the stuff of science fiction, plenty of the technology that's fueling such vehicles is not futuristic at all. Tesla's Model S Autopilot feature employs digital cameras, radar, a dozen ultrasonic sensors and global positioning systems (GPS). The hardware detects distances between cars and objects up to 16 feet around the vehicle in every direction.

Some companies are equipping their autonomous models with high-definition digital maps and lasers to spot and communicate with other cars and obstacles on the road. Companies such as Kia Motors Corp. and Volkswagen AG's Audi are developing sensors and cameras to monitor human drivers' faces to detect if they nod off or stop paying attention and need to be alerted.


The real sophistication of self-driving cars is found in their software and artificial intelligence capabilities. Companies are developing applications that aggregate and analyze the expansive data generated from sensors, cameras and radar to recognize the differences between cars, people and the road. The combination of hardware and software results in technologies like blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, adaptive headlights, traffic jam assistance and advanced collision warning, although exact terms vary by company.

Artificial intelligence programming will be essential in easing a vehicle's dependence away from a human driver. When a car equipped with automated software and sensors by Alphabet Inc.'s Google goes on a test drive, for example, every erratically swerving biker it scans or unpredictable weather condition it comes across can be uploaded to the company's cloud servers. Google's AI technologies process what was learned on that test drive and share it with the company's fleet through its cloud servers.

Levels of Automation

A big part of the confusion surrounding driverless cars stems from the name. Driverless technology doesn't necessarily mean that a human driver isn't still needed to operate or monitor certain systems. Carmakers are expected to roll out a series of progressively independent models requiring declining levels of human oversight. The ultimate endgame—a vehicle with no steering wheel or pedals for a person to intervene—may never catch on with the public.

SAE International, the U.S.-based engineering trade and standards-developing group, developed a new six-level system to classify vehicle autonomy that the DOT's National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has adopted. Automakers around the world use the standard in developing new models, an SAE spokesman told Bloomberg BNA.

The system ranges from a Level 0 — where human drivers control everything — to a Level 5, where cars drive on their own with no steering wheels or other controls for human intervention. In between is Level 1, where most functions are controlled by humans but there are some automated features, like cruise control; Level 2, where multiple tasks like lane centering and help with traffic jams can be handled by the vehicle under human monitoring, but the vehicle alerts the driver if it senses they are inattentive; Level 3, where a human driver is only necessary for monitoring but should be prepared to take control; and Level 4, where a human is not required to operate or monitor the vehicle under certain roadway or driving conditions but could take over at any point.

The Rollout of Regulation

The DOT announced an automated vehicle policy Sept. 20 that it hopes will guide states, manufacturers and developers as prototypes hit the road. The department is asking companies to submit proof that they have completed the voluntary 15-point safety assessment before operating new autonomous models on public roads. The assessment includes collecting and sharing crash data, programming vehicles to comply with local traffic laws and guarding the system against hacking risks. Although the recommendations will be updated annually, and are not legally binding for now, the DOT has the authority to recall vehicles that pose a safety risk.

NHTSA is seeking public comment on its “Federal Automated Vehicle Policy,” even though much of the policy took effect as soon as it was published. The agency calls the policy a “starting point” to provide guidance to industry, government and consumers. NHTSA plans to revise its policy within one year—and periodically after that—to reflect further technological innovations and the public's experience.

DOT also outlined a model state policy for testing and rolling out automated driving technology, to avoid the confusion of trying to track testing via a state-by-state regulatory patchwork. Eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted requirements for autonomous vehicle testing and operation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One big regulatory question is whether the DOT should assume greater control and authority in regulating automated vehicles, something that would require Congress to act. The Obama administration is seeking public feedback on the question. The department could try to make the 15-point safety assessment mandatory, require automated technology to be pre-approved before it can be tested or used on public roads, or issue cease-and-desist orders requiring manufactures to take swift action if a vehicle is deemed to have a high safety risk.

For now, the DOT is planning to release a proposed rule this year mandating all new cars and light trucks be equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle technologies (V2V), known as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). That automated technology will allow cars to talk to each other using radio waves. The system could save lives by detecting other cars' speed, direction and braking status, and by providing advanced warning to the vehicle's driver, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has said.

Companies in the Race

As the government considers how much to regulate autonomous vehicles, dozens of companies are racing to develop self-driving cars, trucks and buses around the world. A handful of vehicles using self-driving technology are commercially available in the U.S. now, while other companies are taking to the roads in testing stages.

In late 2015, Tesla made history when it rolled out a level 2 Autopilot feature in the U.S. that allows for autonomous lane changes. The company's Model S series allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel in certain conditions as the car maintains steering, acceleration and deceleration. The feature has come under scrutiny since May, when a Florida crash killed a driver using Autopilot and spurred an investigation by two federal agencies. The company said neither the automatic braking feature nor the driver reacted when a semi-tractor trailer pulled in front of the vehicle.

A Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz semi-truck became the first semi-autonomous big-rig to drive on a public road last year, though company officials say the truck might not be ready for real-world applications until 2020.

Uber and Volvo teamed up to put autonomous vehicles on Pittsburgh roads in August, making them available to anyone using a ride-hailing application within certain pre-mapped areas of the city. Trained human operators are still in the driver's seat, however, and take over control of the vehicles when necessary.

Google recently announced that its self-driving car program has logged 2 million miles on public roads since its launch in 2009. Part of Google's fleet uses existing car models equipped with an array of sensors, software and cloud connection. The company is also developing a model with no steering wheel, gas or brake pedals to allow a human driver to intervene. Still, Google has yet to give rides to the public or announce plans to make its technology commercially available.

Ford Motor Co. announced plans recently to rollout a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021 to be available for ride-booking services in predetermined areas mapped with high-definition 3-D tech. The company plans to make the car publicly available around 2025. General Motors Co. has also partnered with Lyft Inc. to build an autonomous, on-demand fleet.

Even given that robust level of development, estimates as to when companies will be able to deliver a fully self-driving car—capable of operating on all roadways in all conditions— vary widely, from a couple of years to decades. Automotive and technology company executives have cautioned against rushing self-driving cars to a widespread market before considerably more research is done.

Safety First

Despite the fatal crash in Florida, automakers and connected car proponents say self-driving cars have the potential to save thousands of lives. About 94 percent of traffic deaths are caused by human error or choice, according to NHTSA research. Last year, about 35,100 people died in traffic crashes in the U.S., the administration reported.

Companies are pilot-testing automated cars, often using professional drivers or closed roadways, in a race to collect crash data to prove their vehicles can make roads safer. Tesla said it will keep improving its Autopilot feature to make its cars approximately 10 times safer than the current U.S. fatality average, according to a July blog post.

Driverless cars could also make traffic less congested for everyone and more accessible to a wider population, President Barack Obama said in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial last month.

“Right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives,” Obama wrote.

Safety groups have also lined up behind the technology. Drunk or distracted driving is impossible with a self-driving system, Mothers Against Drunk Driving has said.

“A self-driving car will follow the traffic laws and prioritize safety for pedestrians and bicyclists,” Colleen Sheehey-Church, the group's president, said in a Sept. 20 statement as part of the DOT's announced guidelines.

The Energy Security Leadership Council, a group of military and business leaders that aims to reduce U.S. oil dependence, says that system efficiencies from autonomous technology could reduce gasoline use.

Government and industry officials will continue to tout these potential benefits of self-driving tech as they work to get drivers more comfortable with taking their hands off the wheel.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Tech & Telecom on Bloomberg Law