Cars that talk to one another and drive themselves may arrive on U.S. highways sooner than you think as the Obama administration launches an effort to expedite their progress.
“We don’t want to be part of the problem of integrating this technology into the marketplace,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday. “We want to be part of the solution.”
Foxx plans to reveal the administration’s strategy Wednesday during a speech in Silicon Valley. Though the three initiatives he’s taking sound modest, they may be far-reaching in influence when it comes to putting computer-connected autonomous vehicles on the road.
Foxx plans to speed up the normally ponderous federal rulemaking process, move more quickly to resolve a simmering fight over who gets to use critical bandwidth and remove the array of federal obstacles traditionally faced by innovative technology.
“We want to ensure that industry sees DOT as an agency that is not only working to set the bar for safety in the marketplace but is leading in technologies that can play a role in enhancing safety,” Foxx said.
The administration push is recognition of a fact that is largely lost on many Americans: though it will dawn gradually, the era of the autonomous car is upon them. The first hands-free cars are projected to be available within months, and General Motors says it plans to roll out models next year. Initially the vehicles will be used in limited highway situations, rather than plying city streets.
Though there still are plenty of people who say they won’t buy a partially or fully autonomous car, about half of those surveyed by the Boston Consulting Group last year said they are likely to invest in one.
Like any innovation in the automotive marketplace, the advent of cars that talk to each other (known as vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V) and fully autonomous cars will take years to unfold.
Foxx anticipated that the technology would be fully rolled out within 10 years and that it might be three decades before fully autonomous vehicles rule the roads.
The secretary and officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also showed a firm commitment to cementing the marriage of two closely related technologies: driverless vehicles and direct computer communication between cars on the road.
“V2V offers things that you just can’t get through on-vehicle sensors, through cameras and radar and lasers and so forth,” said a NHTSA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. “V2V sees around corners, it sees 15 cars ahead in traffic and across three or four lanes of traffic. It sees not only the car that is about to speed into the intersection, but whether the driver has applied the brake or not.”
About 33,000 people die in traffic crashes in the United States each year, and a NHTSA study found that 94 percent of those crashes involved some form of human error or miscalculation.
“If there’s an innovation out there that makes the roads safer, we want to embrace it and we want to make sure that it gets onto the highways as soon as it can be demonstrated that it makes the roads safer,” the NHTSA official said. “If we can interpret [federal] standards in such a way that will allow this innovation to go forward, if it makes the roads safer, we will find a way to do that.”
A critical concern that Foxx will begin to address with his planned announcement Wednesday is a battle over bandwidth. Fifteen years ago, anticipating that cars one day would be able to communicate with one another, the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 megahertz of spectrum in the 5.9-gigahertz band for exclusive V2V use.
More recently, the demand for increased WiFi capacity has led to calls for sharing that dedicated bandwidth with other forms of communication.
“It is clear to me that we’ve got to protect the bandwidth,” Foxx said Tuesday. “The 5.9 band is critical to vehicle-to-vehicle technology.”
He said that if any corporation delivered a device to NHTSA that it said would not interfere with V2V communication, he would guarantee that claim would be fully tested within a year, rather than the two to three years that had been previously promised.
“We are saying to industry, you are looking for access to this spectrum, we are willing to test on an accelerated basis,” the NHTSA official said. “We want to be absolutely sure that it would not interfere with safety-critical vehicle applications. Right now the telecommunications companies that want access to the spectrum have not actually produced devices. We are happy to accelerate the testing, but we need the devices to test.”
Some of the technology that will morph into V2V or autonomous vehicle use already is available. Adaptive cruise control, which monitors the speed of a vehicle directly ahead, has been around since 2006. So has the ability of some cars to parallel park using cameras and sensors. Automatic emergency braking came around in 2008, and lane-departure warnings began appearing in cars last year.