U.S. to Invest Nearly $4 Billion in Self-driving Cars

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Self-driving cars got a financial shot in the arm from the federal government Thursday, but a new report shows the autonomous vehicles have safety issues that could delay their appearance on U.S. highways by years.

Announcing the Obama administration’s pledge to invest nearly $4 billion in autonomous technology over the next decade, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said federal guidelines for autonomous vehicles will be developed with industry members and other stakeholders within six months.

Foxx stressed the importance of safety in a presentation made to attendees of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, asking, “What happens if human error could be eliminated?” But a new report from the California Department of Motor Vehicles suggests that machine error also needs to be eliminated.

The major companies testing self-driving cars on California roads reported multiple “disengagements” during testing — moments at which the human drivers were forced to take control of the autonomous vehicles.

Google, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Bosch and Delphi Automotive all reported such disengagements, some occurring as often as once every one to two miles, the report said.

Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with the research firm Gartner, said the disengagement numbers point to the need for a discussion about how many mistakes a car can make.

“I think the numbers we saw … show that the technology still needs to develop in the future,” he said. “But I’m pretty confident that will happen.”

According to the DMV report, which tracked driverless testing for the year that ended in November 2015, Google fared best of the companies reporting the disengagements. The search giant’s self-driving cars experienced 272 incidents in which the human driver had to take control, at the rate of one incident every 1,244 miles.

Volkswagen did less well, with incidents occurring an average of every 57 miles. The automotive parts firm Delphi experienced difficulties every 41 miles, while Nissan had a problem once every 14 miles. The electronics company Bosch and the German car company Mercedes experienced much more frequent issues.

The Silicon Valley-based luxury electric car company Tesla Motors said it had no disengagements during testing, but did not report how many miles its self-driving cars had traveled.

Automakers applauded the Obama administration’s funding declaration as a major step toward the widespread debut of autonomous vehicles because Foxx said the Transportation Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would work to create a model state policy to allow automated vehicles on public roads.

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SOURCE: LA Times, Samantha Masunaga

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