U.S. Stimulates Evolution of Safe Self-Driving Cars

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    GoogleSelfDrivingCar.jpgWASHINGTON, DC, June 3, 2013 (ENS) - The Obama Administration has announced a new policy on autonomous vehicles with guidance for states on the testing, licensing, and regulation of the self-driving vehicles.


    Self-driving vehicles can be operated without direct driver input to control the steering, acceleration, and braking. While operating in self-driving mode, the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway.


    These experimental vehicles are at the highest end of a range of automation that begins with some safety features already in vehicles, such as electronic stability control.


    "Whether we're talking about automated features in cars today or fully automated vehicles of the future, our top priority is to ensure these vehicles – and their occupants – are safe," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.


    "Our research covers all levels of automation, including advances like automatic braking that may save lives in the near term, while the recommendations to states help them better oversee self-driving vehicle development, which holds promising long-term safety benefits," said LaHood.


    Released Thursday by the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, the new policy has three components:


    1. An explanation of the many areas of vehicle innovation and types of automation that offer potential for enormous reductions in highway crashes and deaths;
    2. A summary of the research the NHTSA has begun or has planned to help ensure that all safety issues related to vehicle automation are explored and addressed; and
    3. Recommendations to states that have authorized operation of self-driving vehicles, for test purposes, on how best to ensure safe operation as these new concepts are being tested on highways.


    Several states, including Nevada, California and Florida already have enacted legislation that permits operation of self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles under certain conditions.


    The new policy will provide states interested in passing similar laws with assistance to ensure that their legislation does not inadvertently impact current vehicle technology and that the testing of self-driving vehicles is conducted safely.


    "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," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.


    "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," Strickland said.


    While the technology remains in early stages, NHTSA is conducting research on self-driving vehicles so that the agency has the tools to establish standards for these vehicles, should they become commercially available. The first phase of this research is expected to be completed within the next four years.


    NHTSA defines vehicle automation as having five levels:


    No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls – brake, steering, throttle, and motive power – at all times.


    Function-specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include electronic stability control, a technology resulting from NHTSA research that has been mandatory on all new light vehicles since model year 2011. Another example is pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically applies the brakes so the driver can regain control or stop faster than possible by acting alone.


    Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.


    Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with a comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.


    Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.