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In May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published its "Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles." It pointed to a "continuum" of automobile development that "runs from vehicles with no active control systems all the way to full automation and self-driving."
"Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip," said this federal policy statement. "By design, safe operation rests solely on the automated vehicle system."
To be sure, in a free society, individuals could use automated vehicles to many good ends.
A presentation that a group of Swedish analysts gave at a conference in South Korea in May, which is now posted on the NHTSA website, summarizes the upside potential.
"From an individual perspective the main benefit from autonomous driving would be to recapture the true freedom behind the wheel, the freedom that cars defined a century ago," said this presentation. "At that time freedom was defined by the possibility to go wherever you wanted with your own car. Today true freedom is defined in further dimensions, such as being able to travel and spending time as desired."
"An autonomous driving vehicle could open up possibilities for other activities such as leisure, work and social interaction," said the presentation.
But, if the driver does not control the vehicle, who does?
Last year, under then-Secretary Ray LaHood, the Department of Transportation started a program in Michigan to pilot test "vehicle-to-vehicle" communications systems -- or V2V. This is the next step on the "continuum" toward automated cars.
The department's plan for a V2V research project describes the sort of information vehicles equipped with V2V technology would be able to transmit.
"V2V communication for safety refers to the exchange of data over a wireless network that provides critical information that allows each vehicle to perform calculations and issue driver advisories, driver warnings, or take pre-emptive actions to avoid and mitigate crashes," said the DOT plan.
"Data that may be exchanged," said the plan, "includes each vehicle's latitude, longitude, time, heading angle, speed, lateral acceleration, longitudinal acceleration, yaw rate, throttle position, brake status, steering angle, headlight status, turn signal status, vehicle width, vehicle mass, bumper height and the number of occupants in the vehicle."
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