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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Google declines to back NHTSA guidelines on self-driving cars

Story Originally Appeared in The Detroit News

Washington Search engine giant Google Inc. on Friday declined to endorse the Obama administration’s guidelines on self-driving cars, including the government’s recommendations that states shouldn’t allow general use of self-driving cars.

“We are introducing autonomous vehicle technology to improve people’s lives by making driving safer, more enjoyable, and more efficient. We have already driven over a half million miles and expect the technology to continue to progress rapidly,” Google said in a statement.

The new guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say states — if they eventually allow the sale of self-driving cars — should require special licenses for drivers of autonomous vehicles and require that they sit in the driver seat ready to take over if the vehicle fails.

A company spokesman, Jay Nancarrow, declined to say if Google supports the recommendations.

Google has said it thinks the technology could be commercially available within five years. “We can make cars that drive safer than people do,” Anthony Levandowski, product manager for Google’s self-driving car technology, said during in a speech in February in Washington. “I can’t tell you you’ll be able to have a Google car in your garage next year. We expect to release the technology in the next five years. In what form it gets released is still to be determined.”

But NHTSA says an autonomous driving car is still a long way off, and plans to write rules.

The Michigan legislature plans to revise a proposed bill to allow testing of autonomous vehicles in the wake of NHTSA’s guidance, said Dave Biswas, legislative director to state Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, the sponsor of the bill. Kowall spoke with the Michigan Department of Transportation this week about his bill in the wake of NHTSA’s new guidance and plans to have talks with federal officials, Biswas said Friday.

The bill is currently on the Senate floor and the goal is to win approval before the legislature goes on break in June. Kowall is working on a separate bill to address liability issues that hasn’t yet been introduced.

California, Nevada and Florida have already approved self-driving vehicles for testing, as long as a person is sitting in the driver seat, ready to take over in the event of a problem. Gov. Rick Snyder called for the legislature to act in his state of the state speech earlier this year, noting that Michigan automakers and parts companies are interested in exploring the technology in the state.

In November, Google hired the No. 2 official at NHTSA, Ron Medford, as its director of safety for self-driving cars.

NHTSA said it has had “numerous” talks with Google and other companies about the technology.

Last year, Levandowski said Google wants to log at least 1 million miles before it offers the technology to the general public.

“We’re probably going to put more miles on this technology than any car that was ever released. They don’t put 5 million miles on cars before they launch them,” Levandowski.

Google plans to expand its testing fleet to several dozen — and initially to a small fleet similar to the size of General Motors Corp.’s EV1 program, he said.

“You have to work before you run,” he said.

Levandowski says Google doesn’t want to eliminate driving by people — but make it safer.

“We only want to drive cars when they are fun,” he says.

Even when semi-autonomous driving capability is available on vehicles, the system will have operational limitations based on external factors such as weather and visibility of lane markings. When reliable data is unavailable, the driver will need to steer.