Driverless cars are closer than ever before to hitting the market, but concerns about liability for accidents may hamper progress.
Google has been working on driverless technology for years. Lately, they've been increasingly aggressive about getting their patented driverless technologies into marketable vehicles and onto public roads.
The tech company has already piqued public interest by releasing videos and setting up demos. In March of last year, a self-driving automobile was filmed as it zipped around an intricate arrangement of orange cones in an empty parking lot. Tires squealed as it rounded tight corners at high speeds, avoiding obstacles large and small. This year, Google released a video in which a blind man sits in the driver's seat. With the help of auto-drive technology, he makes a safe trip to the laundromat and a taco shop before heading home.
The public seems open to the idea of purchasing cars with self-driving capabilities. A survey by J.D. Power and Associates, released on April 26, shows that 37 percent of consumers definitely would or probably would buy the technology for their next vehicle. That number dropped to 20 percent when consumers learned that it might cost about $3000.
This is a significant level of interest for a feature that is still in the developmental stage. But despite public interest, driverless cars have been a long time coming. Anthony Levandowski, a product manager for Google, used bold language to argue for the new technology in front of the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress on April 25. I think it's time for us to break that cycle and actually bring [driverless cars] to market sooner. I don' think we need to wait 10 years for the next model or body styles to come out to build this technology.
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He added that driverless cars would never be released until their safety was assured, but argued that waiting too long came at a price. Every year we don't have this technology built, more people die.
This has been Google's main narrative in its push for driverless technology: self-driving cars can make our roads safer. The automobiles use lasers, radar sensors, cameras, GPS and other tools to keep track of variables like surrounding cars, weather conditions and traffic signs. And unlike humans, automated systems never fall asleep, drive drunk or get distracted by a text messages.
This idea is supported by statistics. Popular Science reports that as safety technologies like antilock brakes and traction-control systems have taken hold, the number of fatal accidents has dropped 35 percent between 1970 and 2009, even though cars drive more than a trillion miles farther annually.
Google first patented the auto-driving technology in 2011, but has been working on it since 2008. This involved some under-the-radar testing on California roadways, even though there were no laws to confirm the legality of the operation. In February, Google got official permission to try the self-driving technology on public roads when Nevada became the first state to approve regulations for testing driverless cars. Now with over 200,000 miles of test drives logged, Google is the leading innovator for driverless technology.
But the next big hurdle to overcome is that of regulation; both government officials and insurance companies are uneasy with the prospect of driverless technology. Improved safety or not, accidents are always bound to occur. If a self-driving car is involved in a crash, is the person in the driver's seat liable? And if not, will the responsibility fall on car manufacturers and engineers themselves?
Establishing a regulatory code to answer these questions is key to the feasibility of driverless automobiles, which is why Google has turned its attention to the insurance industry. Levandowski is in dialogue with major car insurance companies, though he did not specify which ones, according to the Detroit Free Press. They see opportunities for this technology being really positive, he said.
Even if insurance companies do end up dragging their feet on the issue, competition may become the impetus for change. In the United States, General Motors' Cadillac has announced vague plans to increase auto-drive capabilities in future models, calling their system 'Super Cruise.' Exploratory changes have already begun. Vehicles that we're introducing even this year, the 2013 Cadillac XTS and the Cadillac ATS, already have technology that is a precursor to the kinds of systems that we're taking about, said Don Butler, the vice president of Cadillac marketing, in a video release.
Other companies, including Ford, have also experimented with semi-autonomous technologies.
And abroad, the China Daily reported that one driverless vehicle last year made a 286-kilometer trip on an expressway between the metropolises of Changsha and Wuhan. The car, a Hongqi HQ3 with full intellectual property rights developed by the National University of Defense Technology, traveled in daytime, taking only three hours and 20 minutes to finish its trip under full computer and sensor control, said the report.
So as Google gears up for a regulatory battle with insurance companies and politicians, they'll have to watch their back lest competitors catch up to them in terms of technology. For Levandowski, it's all about convincing all parties to collaborate in order to get driverless cars onto the road as soon as possible.
The biggest fear is not being able to inspire you guys because we need to work together on this, he said. The real danger is the failure of our imagination.