White House Looks to Spend $3.9B to Jump-Start Autonomous Car Efforts

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2016-01-14 Print this article Print
self-driving car

The DOT effort is aimed at asking manufacturers to ask for regulatory interpretation requests in advance so that they can meet federal standards from the start. In addition, Foxx said that he is encouraging manufacturers to request exemptions from safety standards where necessary to allow the development of autonomous systems and said that each car company could field up to 2,500 vehicles for development and testing.

One of the big hurdles in getting autonomous cars on the road, according to Foxx, is the current patchwork of state regulations. He said that DOT plans to work with state authorities to harmonize requirements for autonomous vehicle licensing, as well as driver's licensing, to make sure that common standards exist.

It's notable that DOT is kicking off the autonomous car effort by starting with standards, rather than simply giving out money randomly. If the technology practices of the past have provided any lesson at all, it's that common interoperability standards advance the technology in ways that nothing else can. This example is made clear by the dominant role of TCP/IP in communications and Ethernet in physical networking. Without those, the Internet would be far less successful than it is now, if it would have ever come into being at all.

What's perhaps most important about the role of technology in DOT's plans is that communications technology is pivotal. One of the first capabilities that the department is working on is automated car-to-car communications so that any vehicle can transmit its status and intentions to the other vehicles around it, while also receiving that information from others.

Without clear communications standards being met by all vehicles, these links between vehicles cannot take place, and without that, the safety and environmental savings that Foxx and DOT hope for will never happen. While it's true that the nascent self-driving cars that are beginning to hit the roads today don't need to communicate beyond themselves, the fact is that this is only because they are few in number. To make the vision of efficient transportation work, more is obviously needed.

Foxx has said that DOT will develop and propose model policies to help states work toward a consistent nationwide policy on autonomous vehicles within the next six months. In addition, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will propose best-practice guidance for safe operations, also in six months.

If this all looks ambitious and complex, that's because it is. In fact, moving transportation in the U.S. to acceptance of autonomous vehicles may be one of the biggest technological challenges of this century. The fact is, this is a very complex undertaking, and it's certain that there will be problems, but at least getting a head start will go a long way toward getting it done.


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