Any doubt about the reality or imminence of driverless cars has all but vanished with the issuance of U.S. government guidelines signaling Washington's intent to regulate the transformative technology's rollout during the next several years.
Predictions abound as to when driverless cars will be commercially available, how quickly they will be purchased -- whether by consumers or companies like Uber -- what they will cost and how they will function in the personal mobility grid. What's now all but certain is that assertive federal involvement -- replacing more conservative rules from 2013 -- will hasten all forecasts.
The U.S. Department of Transportation issued a 15-point "safety and assessment tool" that lets the government evaluate the design and performance of driverless systems. Had such a policy been in place sooner, it might have averted the accident in May between a Tesla Motors' (TSLA) Model S sedan and a tractor-trailer in Florida, resulting in the driver's death. Tesla modified its system following the accident.
Automakers, some of whom have been slow to roll out advancements without legal guidance, have 60 days to comment on the new government policy prior to its adoption.
"We left some areas intentionally vague because we wanted to outline the areas that need to be addressed and leave the rest to innovators," said Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
A General Motors (GM) spokeswoman told the Financial Times the automaker welcomed the effort and was still reviewing the guidance.
Ford (F) said the guidance "will help establish the basis for a national framework that enables the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles. We also look forward to collaborating with states on areas that complement this national framework."
Security from hacking is an example of a growing area of concern by government for vehicles that increasingly will be controlled and updated wirelessly with information about roads, traffic and other factors.
David Barzilay, founder of Karamba Security, which specializes in automotive cybersecurity, said federal guidelines "for self-driving cars are timely. Navigant Research projects that by 2020, 25% of shipped cars will support different levels of autonomy, growing to 44% of all shipped cars in 2025. These levels, established by the NHTSA and the Society of Automotive Engineers, range from braking and acceleration to auto sensing cars and changing lanes to complete autonomy with the car controlling all safety-critical functions through the entire trip."
A study commissioned by a Kia Motors subsidiary in the U.K. predicted that fully driverless cars will account for half of all vehicle sales within 25 years, by which time such vehicles will be able to travel on roads dedicated to their use.
Though decades may pass until the full effects of driverless technology are absorbed and understood fully by modern society, the developments, disappointments, surprises and remedies are sure to be continuous until then.