Google, carmakers join forces to speed self-driving car adoption

Self-driving vehicles could drastically reduce accidents, but face a patchwork of local and state laws

Ford LiDAR autonomous car

A Ford Fusion hybrid sedan is fitted with LiDAR, which allows it to drive itself at night.

Credit: Ford

Google's self-driving vehicle division has joined forces with major carmakers and ride-sharing services to form a coalition to lobby lawmakers and regulators for faster adoption of self-driving car technology.

In all, five companies -- Google's Alphabet, Ford, Lyft, Volvo, and Uber -- formed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets coalition. Its mission: to spur the federal government to usurp a "patchwork" of state driving laws that could hinder autonomous vehicle acceptance.

The coalition also plans to work with civic organizations, municipalities and businesses, "to bring the vision of self-driving vehicles to America's roads and highways."

Tesla's autopilot Tesla

Tesla's Autopilot  has automatic steering, lane keeping and automatic lane change.

"Self-driving vehicle technology will make America's roadways safer and less congested," David Strickland, the Coalition's counsel and spokesperson, said in a statement. "The best path for this innovation is to have one clear set of federal standards, and the Coalition will work with policymakers to find the right solutions that will facilitate the deployment of self-driving vehicles."

Strickland was the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 2010-2014.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has projected that self-driving vehicles could  significantly reduce the severity and frequency of crashes. Last year, there were 33,000 fatalities on America's roads. An estimated 94% of road accidents are caused by human error, and motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among  people aged 15-29 years.

This week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told an audience at an event in Oslo, Norway that his company's semi-autonomous driving system reduces the chance of an accident by as much as 50%.

googles lexus rx 450h self driving car Creative Commons Lic.

Google's Lexus RX45h self driving SUV.

In January, Musk boasted that Tesla's Autopilot was already better at driving on highways than most humans and will be sophisticated enough to navigate a car cross-country on its own.

According to Musk, nearly 1 million cars have already installed the over-the-air software upgrade to the Model S Autopilot feature, which includes a beta version of Autosteer and Auto Lane Change.

The government's on board

In January, the White House unveiled a plan to spend almost $4 billion over 10 years to accelerate the development of self-driving cars.

The Obama administration's first act will be to come up with a set of model regulations to govern the technology and its use on public roads in he U.S.

The plan is an attempt to head off what could become a patchwork of laws that end up hampering research and development.

"Automated vehicles open up possibilities for saving lives, saving time and saving fuel," Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said at a news conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year.

Currently, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) are written for human-controlled vehicles. According to a recent report from the Volpe Center, if the FMVSS is not brought up to date to include autonomous driving technology, self-driving cars "may face significant challenges to certification.

"Automated vehicles that begin to push the boundaries of conventional design (e.g., alternative cabin layouts, omission of manual controls) would be constrained by the current FMVSS," the report said.

In February, fully autonomous vehicles won a major victory when NHTSA sent a letter to Google explaining that the artificial intelligence used to pilot Google's autonomous vehicle could be viewed as the "driver" for some (not all) regulatory purposes.

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