Obama Says He Will Pull Unsafe Self-Driving Cars Off the Road

US President Barack Obama behind the wheel of a self-driving car

“If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road. We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety. We have to get it right.”

This is what U.S. President Barack Obama wrote in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette special piece published yesterday Sep 19, according to Fortune.

US President Barack Obama behind the wheel of a self-driving car
Obama behind the wheel of a self-driving car

The federal government is looking closely at gaining more control over self-driving cars and autonomous driving technology in general. On Monday the Obama administration urged states not to set individual rules for self-driving vehicles.

The spate of accidents related to Tesla’s Model S Autopilot functionality, along with increased concerns over the safety aspects of autonomous driving has prompted Obama’s government to step in to take measures.

The government has released some voluntary guidelines around autonomous capability and has requested that automakers have their cars certified for public safety before releasing them on the road.

Several automakers have already complained that government regulations are making it difficult for them to develop the technologies required for safe self-driving vehicles, and this is the first time the federal government is actually making a broad statement regarding these technologies and the cars they power.

Many car makers already have the technology to make their cars partially autonomous, but the race to full autonomy hasn’t yet been won.

It’s not just the U.S. automakers that will be impacted by any decision the government chooses to take on the matter. Even European companies consider the U.S. to be one of their biggest markets, so any cars that are sold in the United States will equally come under the purview of any legislation.

So far none has been forthcoming, but with autonomous driving taking the front seat in the race to create artificially intelligent vehicles, we shouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. Department of Transportation does take a strong stand in the matter.

The voluntary guidelines that Obama wrote about in the editorial piece include a 15-point checklist that it would like automakers to release to the public. The checklist would cover the various tests done on the vehicle, what backup systems are in place to take over in case the self-driving feature fails and so on.

After the May 7 fatality in June involving a Model S Tesla that was on Autopilot when the crash happened, the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration has been investigating the system that Tesla uses.

But as of now, the government allows automakers to self-certify their self-driving vehicles as being road-worthy. That may soon change, considering that California last year drafted some regulations around self-driving cars necessarily having a steering wheel and a driver to take over in case of system failure, a move that Google has opposed.

This prompted the federal government’s request that states not have separate rules governing self-driving cars, but thus far there has been no major development to convert any of these guidelines into actual laws.

Nearly every automaker – as well as car-hailing service Uber – is working on their own version of autonomous vehicles, and many have already put their cars on the road. Cases in point are IBM Watson-powered Olli, the driverless shuttle currently operating in National Harbor, Maryland, as well as Uber’s 100 driverless Volvo XC 90s that hit Pittsburgh roads about a month ago.

IBM Watson Powered Olli, World's First Self-Driving Shuttle Service
Olli, the world’s first AI-powered shuttle service
Otto self-driving trucks
Otto: Self-driving truck technology developed by ex-Googlers

Another company called Otto – founded by four ex-Google employees that worked on Google’s self-driving car project as part of the company’s future projects division called Google X – is now testing driverless truck technology. Nearly 70% of all cargo in the United States is moved by road, and this will hugely disrupt the shipping industry in the nation.

With so many players in the fray, it’s no wonder the U.S. government has finally turned its attention on autonomous driving and self-driving cars. After all, this could well be the future of the transportation industry.

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