Feds Leave Google's Self-Driving Cars At Stop Sign

The Federal Government is putting the brakes on Google's self-driving cars. At least for now.

Google's ambitious self-driving car program has the potential of becoming a reality sooner than some experts originally anticipated the proliferation of this brand of technology currently consigned to the stuff of speculative fiction.

"I can't tell you you'll be able to have a Google car in your garage next year," said Google's Product Manager for Autonomous Driving Anthony Levandowski.

"We expect to release the technology in the next five years," continued Levandowski who made the announcement at a conference for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in Washington last week.

"In what form it gets released is still to be determined." 

According to an article by Extreme Tech on Friday, whereas some in the industry approximate 2020 ("and beyond") as the nearest date drivers can expect to let the car take the wheel, Google's mark is the aforementioned five (or as little as three) years away.

Either way, Extreme Tech went on to say, any of these estimations "still beat 'probably not in our lifetime.'"

Now enter the Feds.

"It gets to be a massive challenge to figure out how will the government come up with a performance standard that is objective and testable for so many different scenarios where failure could possibly occur," said National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) Senior Associate Director for Vehicle Safety Dan Smith at Jan. 31's SAE panel.

"Part of that has to do with if we should be looking at the underlying electronics."

The real problem, of course, being that designing, manufacturing, selling, and - yes - even being escorted by a self-driving car is something that will only be able to happen after years of rigorous government testing.

Aside from proving they won't suddenly malfunction and literally drive amuck on our highways (not to mention sidewalks), self-driving cars will have to meet the same standards as their conventional forebears, including but not limited to: fuel-economy, stability, and crash safety.

It's an especially difficult situation for the impatient/visionary Google which must contend with the fact the performance metrics simply don't exist yet for self-driving cars. This means, not only will Google have to assure the government their cars can meet certain standards... but also that the very standards themselves will have to be discussed, created, and ultimately agreed upon.

It's simply all just too new, and anything new - particularly technology - is not exactly something the NHTSA has much of a historical record of moving on. In fact, in a recent press release, the National Academy of Sciences openly chastised the NHTSA for not being tech-knowledgeable enough, suggesting that the quorum bring in "an outside board of experts it can call on to assist NHTSA's engineers."

And the less said about how self-driving cars will be insured, the better. Particularly considering the fact that previous new auto technology such as Anti-Lock Brakes in theory should decrease accidents, but is said by some insurance companies to allow drivers to become more confident/risky and thus cause more accidents by default (and therefore resulting in a potential increase of rates because of new tech like ABS).

Confusing or not, the fact remains that whether or not Google can truly get self-driving cars out on the roads within their timeframe of three to five years is not nearly as important as the fact that 2020 is looking to be a closer date for the buzzed/tired driver seeking some assistance on the road.

Only time will tell.

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