The dream of autonomous cars crisscrossing American roads just got a huge boost from the Obama Administration.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced Thursday that the US government plans to invest nearly $4 billion over the next 10 years to help “accelerate the development of safe vehicle automation through real-world pilot projects.” This money will be included as part of the fiscal 2017 budget that the White House will release in February.
The government hopes to use the first six months of 2016 to create a nationwide framework for the “safe development and operation” of autonomous vehicles. And these aren’t half-hearted “autonomous” vehicles that depend upon a human driver being behind the wheel. Rather, the government will work to ensure that “fully autonomous vehicles, including those designed without a human driver in mind, are deployable in large numbers when they are demonstrated to provide an equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available.”
Creating a single, unified set of national safety standards should help streamline the development of autonomous cars. After all, it was only a few months ago when the CEO of Volvo said that his company could not conduct “credible” autonomous car tests given the separate standards in place in different states.
Of course, companies like Google and Ford are already deep into development of autonomous driving technology. Mercedes told me at CES in Las Vegas last week that it expects to have the technology ready by 2020, while Google told Steven Levy’s Backchannel that it, too, may have the technology ready by 2020.
One thing that’s missing from this discussion, however, is to the degree that people are actually comfortable with the idea of autonomous cars being on the road. Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, said in a research note published earlier today that drivers, at least initially, may be more comfortable with more limited forms of autonomy (where drivers’ input is still necessary) than full-on driverless cars. “The bar for developing trust is not merely driving safely, but in such a way the occupants of the vehicle feel safe,” he said. “Gaining user trust is going to be a long game [that] companies can’t short circuit.”