Autonomous vehicles

Google’s driverless car is just one experiment.

The race is on to a driverless vehicle future.

A few years ago, Google’s effort to develop self-driving cars may have seemed like a novelty. Now, that effort and others like it look like the shape of things to come.

Last week, the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a bill that speeds development of autonomous cars. The bill, which the U.S. House of Representatives already passed, goes before the full Senate now.

The bill prohibits states from setting regulatory blocks. States could regulate licensing of the vehicles, but not performance. Automakers, Google parent Alphabet, and ride sharing companies developing self-driving cars are lobbying for the law.

Reuters reports:

Senator John Thune, the Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, said the bill “underscores the bipartisan desire to move ahead with self-driving vehicle technology…. The safety and economic benefits of self-driving vehicles are too critical to delay.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, sought to amend the bill to require human controls in case of emergency, but dropped that proposal. Some senators argued it would be more dangerous to allow human drivers to seek to take over driverless cars.

The committee’s action comes as technologists and investors imagine a future in which autonomous vehicles mix with human drivers. Madrona Venture Group has even proposed that humans and self-driving vehicles take different roads, because humans won’t drive as well as robot cars.

According to Wired:

In the early days of the transition, any autonomous vehicle, no matter its powertrain or number of occupants, would be allowed to use existing HOV lanes on the I-5. These carpool lanes are usually separated from the rest of the traffic, making them easy to handle even for today’s semi-autonomous driving systems. The Madrona team says this should be implemented within a year.

By 2025, that HOV lane would be closed to human drivers, along with the one next to it (the highway is eight lanes wide). The paper’s authors say those two lanes could be used as three, as autonomous vehicles can safely drive more closely together. By 2030, the majority of the highway would be closed to human drivers, with the takeover complete by 2040.

“This final transition will require some tipping point in terms of vehicle availability and public interest,” the authors write. “We believe this will happen in the next ten to twenty years, when usage and data will demonstrate the dramatic benefits of autonomy along the dimensions of safety, efficiency, and productivity.”

The Senate bill does not speed development of autonomous trucks. But they’re on the way, too. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports:

“This technology is not just coming; it’s here,” said John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, which has a task force on autonomous vehicles that met for the first time in September.

Gary Pressley, a task force member and president of Heavy Metal Truck Training in Eagan, said that activity is picking up. Last month, the issue was among topics he discussed at a retreat held by a trucking company in Green Bay, Wis., and at a national meeting of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association in San Antonio.

“We’re talking years and years of testing and acceptance” before autonomous trucks become commonplace on America’s roads, Pressley said. “It’s not going to be next year. … But it is coming.”

Autonomous trucks may be years away. Robot cars tooling down the highway also may take a while. But self-driving cars in more contained settings may be coming sooner. In fact, one such experiment is already upon us, as the New York Times reports.

Voyage, a startup spun out of Udacity, is test-driving two autonomous Ford Fusions in a California retirement village and has plans to expand.

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