GM says self-driving vehicles not ready in ‘foreseeable future’; Nissan vows …

November 19, 2013

Washington A senior General Motors official and a top researcher told a House panel that self-driving cars will not be available “for the foreseeable future,” while Nissan Motor Co. is sticking to its timetable of offering autonomous vehicles by 2020.

Mike Robinson, vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs at GM, told the House Transportation Committee’s’ panel on highways and transit that drivers will have to stay involved for some time.

Over the last two years, autonomous vehicles have sparked the publics imagination and countless news stories. Search engine giant Google Inc. has logged more than 500,000 miles on its fleet of research autonomous vehicles, while three states have approved laws for testing. Last week, the Michigan Senate voted 38-0 to allow testing of autonomous vehicles on the states roads.

“Our work has taken us a long way. Were making important steps in implementing active safety technology but there is still much work to be done before a fully autonomous vehicle can be commercialized,” Robinson’s said. “People assume that an autonomous vehicle will take you to your destination without your involvement after simply issuing a command without any oversight by the driver. Let me say for the record, that these types of systems are a significant distance into the future. Realistically, we expect that for the foreseeable future, while systems will add automation to support the driving task, the driver will still need to be engaged and in control.”

Raj Rajkumar, who heads the Carnegie Mellon University driverless car research project, said he believes “only sometimes in the 2020s will a fully autonomous system that does not require a human to be in the driver’s seat become feasible.”

He said the cars can eventually revolutionize transportation. Rajkumar also urged policy makers to go slow.

“We should exercise caution in rushing to deploy technologies before ensuring that they can be trusted. For the foreseeable future, a human must continue to sit in the driver’s seat even if the vehicle is driving itself,” he said.

Robinson said getting it right will take time.

“This is because driving is a very complicated task, and it will take some time for computer-driven systems to be capable of managing and reacting to all of the situations that drivers encounter,” he said. “So even as we promote more and more technology to enhance this capability, we should expect it to take a generation (or more) for this technology to be commonplace and reach the level of ‘driver freedom’ that some envision.”

Andy Christensen, senior manager of technology planning at Nissan, noted the company’s CEO, Carlos Ghosn, has vowed to have an autonomous vehicle ready to sell by 2020.

“The time frame is challenging but we believe achievable,” he said.

He noted that 90 percent of the nation’s 6 million traffic crashes are the product of human error.

“We believe that autonomous driving technology has the potential to successfully address the types of situations in these accidents,” he said. The development of autonomous technology remains a challenging task, which will require careful planning and resource allocation.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland noted the agency has issued autonomous vehicle guidelines to states and doesn’t recommend approval by states of the vehicles for any reason besides testing.

“What was once previously thought of as science fiction and decades away from reality may now appear to be just around the corner, particularly as some of these companies are touting that they will have a commercially available vehicle in the next five years,” Strickland said.

NHTSA is looking at whether to begin the regulatory process to require autonomous features in cars like automatic braking and will make a decision on its plans by year’s end, he said.

“Such technologies employ radar, camera, lidar or the fusion of these technologies to detect and track vehicles or objects in the forward path and activate the brakes if the driver fails to do so or supplement the drivers braking to avoid or mitigate collisions. We are also evaluating whether enhancements to these systems could be robust enough to detect and avoid pedestrian impacts. The agency estimates that these technologies could impact approximately 900,000 rear-end (vehicle to vehicle) and 29,000 pedestrian crashes each year and thus offer the potential for substantially reducing property damage, injuries, and fatalities associated with motor vehicle crashes,” Strickland said.

Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., said the technology is scary and wondered if the technology could cost mechanics jobs because they will be too complicated to repair in the future. I get it its the future, he said.

He questioned how driverless cars would work in New York City.

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, told the panel that autonomous vehicles could help prevent many of the 32,000 or more traffic deaths and 2.2 million injuries annually.

“To reach this ultimate goal, many years of research, testing and evolution of vehicles technology and infrastructure will have to take place,” he said.

But driverless cars would mean states would have to spend much less on highway infrastructure like extra-wide lanes, guard rails, rumble strips, wide shoulders and even stop signs. By the time of 90 percent market penetration for driverless vehicles, he said, adding that society could save more than $400 billion annually in transportation costs.

But challenges remain such as legal liability, preventing hacking of vehicles, privacy and ensuring enough wireless network space to make the program work. Steudle and Rajkumar both urged Congress to continue funding for autonomous and connected vehicle research programs.

“Vehicles can travel closer to each other, utilizing available roads better and traveling at uniform, and therefore faster, speeds,” he said in his testimony.

Carnegie Mellon’s retrofitted autonomous 2011 Cadillac SRX funded in part by GM has logged about 10,000 miles of testing.

Rajkumar said autonomous cars face many challenges, including the fact they perform poorly in bad weather especially rain and other challenges that include “non-ideal road surfaces, different lighting conditions, fixed and moving obstacles from fallen trees to darting children, and the need for redundancy to ensure safe recovery from any failure of sensors, actuators, computers or communications networks.”

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