IN A limited sense, cars have been “driverless” for a long time — ever used cruise control? — but they are about to become far more capable, and soon, revolutionizing the way people get around. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx promised last week that the federal government will smooth the rollout of driverless vehicle technologies, removing unnecessary regulatory roadblocks and delays. But realizing the benefits of driverless technology will require more than smart regulation; companies and the government will have to convince the public that driverless cars are safe.
The possibilities are tantalizing. “Connected, automated vehicles that can sense the environment around them and communicate with other vehicles and with infrastructure have the potential to revolutionize road safety and save thousands of lives,” Mr. Foxx declared last week. Cars are already rolling off assembly lines with smarter cruise control, automatic braking and lane-centering technologies. In coming years they will be able to do much more, such as directly pinging one another, which will combine with radar and laser sensors to make onboard computers hyper-aware of their surroundings. Driver error causes nearly all fatal crashes. Computers that never doze off or look down to text could save 30,000 lives a year.
Fewer crashes would improve traffic flow. So would putting an end to bottlenecks caused by rubbernecking. People could reclaim untold hours now spent in start-and-stop frustration. Even when in their cars, they could devote time to productive or entertaining activities rather than dealing with the monotony of most commutes. And they would burn less gasoline per mile traveled. Those who have disabilities or who are too old to drive could get around far more easily. Car-sharing would be much easier, as well. Parking could be better organized.
The technology that would enable all this is getting closer to prime time. Google announced Friday that it is ramping up the testing of its gumdrop-shaped, fully automated cars around Mountain View, Calif. At least as important, though, will be providing the transparency necessary to encourage public confidence. The company, one of many that has official permission to test driverless cars on public roads, reported earlier this week that its experimental vehicles have been involved in 11 accidents over 1.7 million miles traveled so far. The company claimed that humans behind the wheels of other cars were at fault in every instance. But Google will have to provide as many specifics as possible as its testing intensifies. State governments can help by verifying the claims companies make about driverless vehicle safety records.
Polling indicates that Americans are intrigued by driverless cars, but that there’s a lingering — and understandable — hesitation among many. Giving up control requires a major psychological shift. The sooner the technology is proven and trusted, the sooner the benefits will accrue.