The Department of Transportation recently released revised guidelines for driverless cars, relaxing some guidelines put out during the Obama administration last year. For example, a 15-point safety assessment was trimmed to just 12 points, and the guidelines no longer apply to Level 2 vehicles with partial automation such as crash-avoidance features.
Many questioned the impact of those guidelines, however, since safety assessments remain voluntary and autonomous-auto makers haven't turned in a single one yet. Mandatory rules regarding bigger issues like making sure the systems work and requiring sharing of data will still depend on bills passed in Congress.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Consumer Watchdog privacy advocate John Simpson warned that the relaxed guidelines could allow "manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want," thus turning roads into "private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety." Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao argues that fewer guidelines will allow automakers to flourish, by preserving "innovation and creativity."
In the big picture, the revised guidelines may make it slightly easier for automakers to develop and test driverless vehicles, but it certainly isn't a game-changing move that will jump-start the industry. Let's take a look at what's going on in the industry and why public perception must change -- while privacy and security issues must be addressed -- before robot cars start replacing regular ones in large numbers.
Which companies are betting on a driverless future?
Many automakers, chipmakers, and internet software players are investing heavily in the driverless market. Ford plans to launch a fully autonomous vehicle for ride-sharing in 2021 and could be selling autonomous vehicles to private owners five to 10 years later.
Tesla' Autopilot adds Level 2 autonomy to its vehicles, but the company was criticized after a deadly accident that happened last year while Autopilot was activated. Tesla later ditched its computer vision chip supplier, Mobileye, for NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA).
Many high-end automakers use NVIDIA's Tegra chips in infotainment and navigation systems. NVIDIA built upon those foundations and launched Drive PX, a "supercomputer" that powers driverless cars. NVIDIA's chips also power Audi's A8, the world's first Level 3 autonomous car, which the company says can drive itself at speeds up to 37 mph on roads with a physical barrier separating traffic going in different directions.
NVIDIA's success inspired rival chipmakers like Intel and Qualcomm to enter the market. Intel recently purchased Mobileye and other computer vision companies, while Qualcomm plans to buy NXP Semiconductors, the biggest automotive chipmaker in the world.
In the internet software market, search giants like Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google and Baidu (NASDAQ: BIDU) are working on driverless technology. Google has already tested its driverless cars on public roads, and recently rebranded its driverless unit as a separate business called Waymo. Baidu, which believes it can put driverless cars on the road by 2020, is developing Apollo, an open-source software platform it claims could become the "Android of autonomous cars."
Automakers and tech companies are enthusiastic about driverless cars, but the mainstream public isn't convinced yet. A survey by AAA earlier this year found that 54% of U.S. drivers "would feel less safe" sharing the road with autonomous cars while they drove a regular car.
Google's report that all the accidents involving its driverless cars were caused by human drivers adds to the tough question of whether driverless cars will actually be safer if other manually driven cars are still on the road.
Meanwhile, a growing number of cybersecurity issues indicate that connected and driverless cars could be very vulnerable to hackers. Google keeps its driverless cars mostly offline to hinder hackers, while Audi keeps its critical functions on a separate network, but the potential for autonomous cars to be hijacked remains a top concern for security experts and law enforcement agencies.
Automakers have also been reluctant to share their data with companies like Google, citing concerns that they could monetize their customers' data by tracking their routines. This rift could widen and fragment the fledgling market, making it even harder for driverless cars to gain mainstream acceptance. To top it off, drivers of buses, trucks, and taxis -- all of which could be replaced by autonomous vehicles -- could retaliate with the support of unions and regulators.
There's a lot of work to do before there's no driving to do.