First Nevada, now California. This week a bill passed in the California Senate that would permit self-driving cars to be tested within the Golden State. The bill is now on its way to the State Assembly to potentially become law. Self-driving cars recently became legal in Nevada and are being considered in Florida, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Hawaii.
While totally autonomous vehicles may not become widespread quickly, there's growing support for using technology to improve traffic safety, according to data released today by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The study said that an overwhelming majority of drivers who have experienced technology that allows vehicles to communicate with each other have a highly favorable opinion of its safety benefits.
Safety considerations played a big factor in the California decision.
"Human error is the cause of almost every accident on the road today," said Alex Padilla, a state senator. "If autonomous technology can reduce the number of accidents, then we also reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on California's roads. For me this is a matter of safety."
In 2011 alone, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), said California saw a total of 32,310 fatalities due to car crashes, and those in favor of the self-driving car strongly believe the new technology can help to lower that number.
"Thousands of Californians tragically die in auto accidents each year," Padilla said. "The vast majority of these collisions are due to human error. Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle can analyze the driving environment more quickly and accurately and can operate the vehicle more safely."
With that in mind, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Research and Innovation Technology Administration (RITA) have been working with the auto industry to research the effectiveness and feasibility of connected vehicle technology that enables vehicles to “talk” to one another with Wi-Fi-like technology that could help prevent crashes altogether, the DOT said.
In a press release, the DOT announced the results of six “driver acceptance clinics” that were held across the country at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s 2012 Annual Meeting in Washington today. The pilot programs were held between August 2011 and January 2012 to gather feedback from 688 drivers who participated in tests of “vehicle-to-vehicle” communications. The information gathered from the program showed that an overwhelming majority of drivers would like to have the features included in their own vehicles, and most believe the technology would be useful in improving driver safety.
“Safety is our top priority, and we are always looking for ways that innovative technology can be harnessed to improve driver safety,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Connected vehicle technology offers tremendous promise – for improving safety, reducing traffic jams and increasing fuel efficiency. It’s encouraging to see that most drivers agree and want this technology in their cars.
Unlike Nevada, California isn't allowed to actually test the cars on roads just yet, but if the bill passes, it will specifically outline the state's safety requirements for test drives in the very near future.
Before voting, State Senator Alan Lowenthal had a chance to briefly drive inside the highly-anticipated car. "I had the pleasure of going out for a drive on the autonomous vehicle. I have to say that there are still some issues with it, but it's a better driver than I am," he quipped.
Padilla also got a chance to test drive the vehicle. "When it's you in that drivers seat, and you engage the autonomous technology, take your hands off the wheel and foot off the pedal, it's not until then that you appreciate how sophisticated the technology is," he said.
The bill, SB 1298, passed with a unanimous vote of 37-0, and will make its way to the State Assembly in a month's time.
The DOT's driver clinics, the first phase of the Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Program, were completed this past year to gather information on how drivers would interact with the technology. More than four out of five participants, or 82 percent, strongly agreed that they would like to have vehicle-to-vehicle safety features on their personal vehicle. In addition, more than 90 percent of the participants believed that a number of specific features of the connected vehicle technology would improve driving in the real world, including features alerting drivers about cars approaching an intersection, warning of possible forward collisions, and notifying drivers of cars changing lanes or moving into the driver’s blind spot.
“Vehicle-to-vehicle technologies have the potential to significantly reduce fatalities and injuries in crashes and could one day help motorists avoid crashes altogether,” said David Strickland, NHTSA Administrator. “These technologies may prove to be the next game-changer as we look at the future of auto safety.”
NHTSA and RITA will launch the year-long second phase of the Connected Vehicle program this summer, during which approximately 3,000 equipped vehicles will test crash-avoidance technologies that include in-vehicle forward-collision warnings, “do not pass” alerts, and warnings that a vehicle ahead has stopped suddenly. The program will take place on roads in Ann Arbor, Mich., and will also involve a limited number of applications allowing vehicles to communicate with the roadway.
Eight major automotive manufacturers are working on the project: Ford Motor Company, General Motors LLC., Honda R&D Americas, Inc., Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center, Inc., Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, Inc., Nissan Technical Center North America, Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, Inc. and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.