At the moment, just four states and the District of Columbia allow any operation of driverless cars. The rules vary widely. In Nevada, for example, operators can use their cell phones while the car drives them around. Michigan, on the other hand, only allows manufacturer testing in very controlled circumstances for the time being.
Chris Attard, a Ford research engineer who works in Dearborn, Mich., acknowledges that the policy inconsistency could be a difficulty. "[Regulation] shapes how we approach the problems; it shapes what the final implementation will be and what we do with it," he said. "There has to be that handshake between government and private industry on this."
USER'S GUIDE TO TODAY'S ROBOT CAR
But for regulators and legislators to effectively craft guidelines, they have to understand what today's autonomous cars can and can't do.
Automakers shake their heads at the perception that robot-mobiles will soon allow you to nap in the backseat or watch a movie while the car navigates your daily commute. To a person, the car people say they're not about to rob you of the fun of driving — they just want to get rid of the boring parts. "We all love country roads," said Greg Stevens, who heads Ford's driver assistance and safety programs. "[But] there are aspects of driving that are not that much fun."
For instance, some cars are on the verge of being able to handle the bulk of a long road trip. "Freeway [driving] is pretty easy to accomplish," said Audi's Brad Stertz said. "Everybody's going the same direction, there's a little weaving, but you don't have cars backing out of driveways, or kids and dogs running across the street." Still, even in autonomous mode, the cars will require drivers to be alert and ready to take over at any time.
Already in Europe, some BMW drivers are taking advantage of Traffic Jam Assistant, which controls car speed and steering in some slow-driving situations. But thanks to a lack of U.S. policy, that feature is not available for American consumers.
Another advancement, announced last week by Ford, is a partnership with Stanford to help vehicles learn how to maneuver to increase their vision. Much like a driver would gradually steer toward the center line to see around a large truck, autonomous cars need to be in position to best make use of their sensors. "We want the vehicle to be aware and to do the kind of things that humans would do, which is to take a peek around this side, take a peek around that side, see what's up ahead," Stevens said.
Cars are also becoming more aware of their drivers. Buchko talks of cars that will be able to "intervene in emergency situations," pulling safely to the side and alerting emergency personnel if the driver passes out or has a heart attack.
Parking, too, could be mostly left to the car. "You pull up to a sporting event or work, and you've reserved a spot," Stertz said. "The car knows it and goes and parks itself [after it] drops you off at the front. That could be a huge thing at a Redskins game, right?"