Consumer Group Warns On Robot Cars; Tesla Goes There

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Tech companies and carmakers from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) to Volvo are working on self-driving cars. But robot autos don't belong under the rules of the road yet, warns Consumer Watchdog.

In a letter Thursday to the heads of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the public-interest group lobbies the regulators to go slow at writing new rules allowing self-driving cars a call to action.

"NHTSA has launched a series of safety initiatives in recent months, including efforts to speed technology innovations that can improve safety and the agency's first comprehensive effort to fight drowsy driving," the DOT said in a briefing Nov. 24. "The agency announced today that it will hold a series of cross-cutting regional meetings across the country early next year, capped by a nationwide gathering in Washington, to gather ideas, engage new partners and generate additional approaches to combat human behavioral issues that contribute to road deaths."

Beyond that, in talking points for a transportation summit in Texas Nov. 23, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind noted: "Connected automation: a) Guidance from Secretary Foxx: if it makes roads safer, we want it here faster. b) NHTSA examining regulatory framework to identify obstacles to safety innovation."

Where Are Self-Driving Cars?

Active safety features have moved from experimental to mainstream in several makes of cars, doing everything from helping vehicles stay in their lanes to braking automatically. Tesla says that its Autopilot system, which does both on its way to more comprehensive automation, is enabled on 40,000 of its Model S sedans and Model X crossovers.

Companies ranging from sensing-camera technology provider Ambarella (NASDAQ:AMBA) to visual-computing chipmaker Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) to advanced driver assistance system provider Mobileye (NYSE:MBLY) are involved in active-safety and self-driving car efforts. Nvidia says that it has 50 corporate partners in its autonomous driving work.

Fully self-driving cars, however, are typically allowed only in test situations on roads in some U.S. states. Alphabet 's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google was an early entrant, driving around California roads. It's partly working with vehicles from Toyota's (NYSE:TM) Lexus division.

"After Jan. 1, the DMV (California Department of Motor Vehicles) will gain valuable insight into how well the self-driving technology is working, because the companies testing the robot cars are required to file 'disengagement reports' covering the period from September 2014 through this November," Consumer Watchdog said in its letter to the NHTSA. "The reports will describe all cases when the human driver had to assume control to ensure safety or cases when the autonomous technology failed."

Future Traffic Cops

The federal government's been moving toward allowing automation for several reasons. Among them is the potential for some "active safety" technologies such as automated braking to save lives by reducing accidents. There's also a traffic aspect, given the nation's increasingly congested roadways and the high cost of building new roads: Fully automated cars are expected to communicate eventually with highway infrastructure for route optimization in what are called intelligent transportation systems.

What about drivers? More than one in four Americans say that they are "very likely" to try a self-driving car, in a poll by Boston Consulting Group for the World Economic Forum. But that result, 27%, was lower than a global average of 29% and way behind India, where 56% of survey respondents were ready for the robots.

Follow Donna Howell on Twitter @IBD_DHowell.

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