First Autonomous Cars Without People On Board Soon Start Roaming Streets

With 42 entities operating more than 285 autonomous vehicles in California – US-wide even more – everyone is waiting for the next big step. So far, regulations require the presence of a safety driver in those test cars, to manually take over control in case of an emergency. But this is about to change.

First, both the US Congress and Senate passed a law that allows up to 100,000 autonomous vehicles on public roads in the US, without sticking to the strict safety standards mandatory for manual cars. Not that those autonomous cars can now wreak havoc, but safety standards for them have to be developed and tested. And that doesn’t work without driving them on public roads.

Second, California DMV has proposed new regulations early this year that would not require safety drivers in the cars anymore. Exceptions have already been granted, e.g. at the office park Bishop Ranch, where a driverless shuttle is giving employees a ride. After public hearings a new proposal has been created that shall take effect in summer 2018,  Bloomberg reports. At the same time those cars will be allowed to be used by the public.

Google-subsidiary Waymo is already waiting to get ready. The self-driving company submitted as first entity an extensive safety report to the Department of Transportation (DoT). In this report Waymo describes the types of safety relevant scenarios that its cars have encountered during 3.5 million miles (5.6 million kilometers) of real world driving and several billions of simulated driving.

The NHTSA suggested a set of 28 behavioral competencies that each autonomous car has to be able to respond to. Some are exceedingly basic (“Detect and Respond to Stopped Vehicles,” “Navigate Intersections and Perform Turns”) and others are more intricate (“Respond to Citizens Directing Traffic After a Crash”).

Waymo lists 19 additional scearios and challenges, including detecting and responding to animals, motorbikes, school busses, slippery roads, unexpected weather conditions, as well as faded or mission street signs. Those real world scenarios are then replayed in thousands of variations in the simulator. Waymo describes 5 safety categories:

  1. Behavioral Safety
  2. Functional Safety
  3. Crash Safety
  4. Operational Safety
  5. Non-Collision Safety

Waymo is expected – as first company – to start testing autonomous vehicles without a human safety driver on board this year.

The regulators see autonomous vehicles as a key technology to make roads safer. And all vehicles can learn and improve from the mistakes of one car, while humans cannot.

This article has also been published in German.

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