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What's Next For Self-Driving Cars?

Google was told by the National Highway Traffic Administration earlier this month that the self-driving car system can be considered as a driver.
San Jose Mercury News TNS via Getty Images
Google was told by the National Highway Traffic Administration earlier this month that the self-driving car system can be considered as a driver.

What's Next For Self-Driving Cars?

Would you have a computer drive for you?

Some say yes if the computer is accurate and has no bugs in it, while some say no because they want to be in control and they enjoy driving.


A University of Michigan survey found that about 90 percent of Americans have some concerns about the concept of self-driving cars. But most also say that they do want some aspects of the car to be automated.

Whatever Americans think, the legal and regulatory groundwork is being laid right now for a drastically different transportation landscape — one where we ride around in cars that drive themselves. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told Google this month that the self-driving car system can be recognized as the driver.

NPR's Robert Siegel will talk to several key players in the industry this week about the emerging world of self-driving cars. Today, he spoke with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Interview Highlights

On the safety of self-driving cars

We actually have some studies that some private sector folks have done suggesting that the combination of autonomous and connected vehicles would potentially reduce our fatalities by 80 percent — that is a pretty significant number when you consider we have almost 33,000 fatalities on the road every year.


On the California Department of Motor Vehicles' proposed regulations that self-driving cars would be required to have a licensed driver inside

Obviously, where technology is today that is definitely a good principle and of course, we would not suggest putting something unsafe on the road. That's why we have federal motor vehicle standards in the first place and by the way, our interpretation of a driver as one of these driverless systems doesn't mean that the car itself meets all of our standards. There are still some questions that have to be resolved by the technology company as to whether those vehicles meet our standards. ... I can't tell you definitively today that our view will be that having a licensed driver in the car is a requirement or should be a requirement of operating a driverless car.

On other questions the U.S. Department of Transportation is concerned about

Let's think about what it takes to get a driver's license in the first place. When I came out of high school I was ready to get my driver's license and the expectation at that time was the driver would be fully engaged 100 percent of the time when he or she was operating a vehicle. In a world where the vehicle is doing more of the driving task, we are also asking questions of ourselves how we train people to drive in cars like that.

On how the government should be proactive in testing new technology

Under our old methodology, we would have waited for an auto company to come up with a driverless car and we would have had to learn the entire system at one time and that would have taken years and years and we wouldn't have been as familiar with it. The way we're doing it now, taking interpretations like ... the car being a driver under our safety standards, these interpretations are also teaching us, and so as we learn, we are going to be better and better until we are able to keep pace with innovation and I think safety will benefit as well.

On Tuesday, Siegel will talk to Brian Soublet, deputy director and chief legal counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

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