Which Way Are Driverless Cars Headed?

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Over the past two years, Action Alerts PLUS holding Alphabet (GOOGL) has made a strong push for driverless cars with varying degrees of success, as aspects of the industry have been met with opposition at the federal and state levels.

Google isn't the only company devloping the technology, however, and the movement for automated vehicles is gaining momentum. Volvo announced plans last week to test 100 driverless cars in China. "Autonomous driving can make a significant contribution to road safety. The sooner [autonomous] cars are on the roads, the sooner lives will start being saved," Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson told an audience at an event in Beijing today, according to the BBC.

On Monday, Dividend Stock Advisor holding Ford (F) revealed that it has successfully tested its self-driving Ford Fusion in complete darkness with no headlights and no streetlights. "The purpose for doing the testing at night was to test a situation where there might be poor illumination," Randal Visintainer, Ford's director of autonomous vehicles, told Tech Insider. "We took it to the extreme and went into complete darkness."

Uber and Tesla (TSLA) have also invested heavily in autonomous driver technology. Tesla has hired driverless-car experts from Carnegie Mellon University for a special unit, according to the Telegraph, although it appears to still be at the research stage.

California, Google's home state, has taken notice and enacted laws that will pave the way for consumers to get their hands on the technology.

"Our concern is safety. The whole guiding principle to us in  mulling out these regulations is ensuring, as the statute requires us to do, the vehicles are safe for deployment on California streets," a California DMV spokesperson told Tech Insider.

Last month, Chris Urson, director of Google's self-driving car initiative, urged lawmakers with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology to enact laws that will allow driverless cars to operate on public roads. Urson framed Google's position as a safety issue, pointing to the fact that 1.2 million people die globally in traffic accidents annually.

Despite the strides being made by automakers and tech companies, there are regulatory barriers to the technology coming market. The purveyors of this technology are also facing pushback from consumer groups.

In a letter sent to the secretary of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Consumer Watchdog presented a list of concerns posed as questions about the safety of what it called Google's "robot cars." The letter was sent last week ahead of the first public NHTSA hearing on the matter, which happened Friday in Washington, D.C.

During the NHTSA hearing, Consumer Watchdog noted that during 15 months and 424,331 miles of testing, Google reported that its autonomous system failed 272 times, leading the company to recommend laws that require a driver behind the wheel.

"It's imperative that a human be behind the wheel capable of taking control when necessary. Self-driving robot cars simply aren't ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention," says Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, John M. Simpson.  "Deploying a vehicle today without a steering wheel, brake, accelerator and a human driver capable of intervening when something goes wrong is not merely foolhardy, it's dangerous."

Regulation probably won't kill this technology, as consumers' appetites have already been whetted by the prospect of allowing a computer to get them to and from their destinations. But the road to a driverless-car future may be rocky in the near term as all the potholes get filled. 

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