self-driving cars, Google and regulators disagree over timing

Google Inc. sees self-driving cars being available to consumers in three to five years. Regulators and the insurance industry aren’t so sure it can happen that quickly.

Some changes that must be considered and addressed are:

  • Software and electronic sensors couldn’t fail and would have to anticipate and react like a human.
  • States may have to decide how to license machines rather than people.
  • Insurance companies have to reassess how to assign fault after accidents.
  • Safety standards have to be rewritten to focus on electronics along with mechanics.

“The improvement can be such that we can make cars that drive safer than people do,” Anthony Levandowski, product manager for Google’s self-driving car technology, told a Society of Automotive Engineers meeting in Washington last week. “I can’t tell you you’ll be able to have a Google car in your garage next year. We expect to release the technology in the next five years. In what form it gets released is still to be determined.”

U.S. auto-safety regulators are eager to reap the safety benefits that may come from taking human error out of driving. About 33,000 people die annually in traffic crashes in the United States, with that number falling yet killing almost as many people each year as suicide.

David Strickland, head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, used an analogy to “The Jetsons,” a 1960s animated television comedy featuring gadgets including a flying car that folded into a briefcase.

“It’s going to make a huge difference in reducing crashes overall,” Stickland said in an interview. While crash-avoidance systems that can alert a driver or apply brakes in advance of a wreck are coming to cars now, autonomous vehicles “are a long way off,” he said.

The self-driving car is among projects stemming from Google’s practice of letting employees develop ideas not part of its’ online search and digital advertising.

The car is allowed on public roads for testing purposes in Nevada, California and Florida. The company has demonstrated it on the streets of Washington and other cities where it might need to win favor for such a car to be considered road-worthy.

“Our focus is on the technology itself,” Google spokesman said Jay Nancarrow.

Google also established a connection with regulators by hiring Ronald Medford, NHTSA’s deputy director under Strickland, as of last month as director of safety for the self-driving car.