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Experts caution self-driving cars aren’t ready for roads

A Google self-driving car went on a test drive near the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
A Google self-driving car went on a test drive near the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Eric Risberg/AP/file 2014

WASHINGTON — Self-driving cars are more likely to hurt than help public safety because of unsolved technical issues, engineers and safety advocates told the government Friday, countering a push by innovators to speed government approval.

Even a trade association for automakers cautioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that a slower, more deliberative approach may be needed than the agency’s aggressive plan to provide its guidance for deploying the vehicles in just six months. The decision to produce the guidance was announced in January and officials have promised to complete it by July.

There are risks to deviating from the government’s traditional process of issuing regulations and standards, Paul Scullion, safety manager at the Association of Global Automakers, said at a public meeting on self-driving cars hosted by NHTSA.


Issuing new regulations takes an average of eight years, NHTSA has said. Regulations are also enforceable, while guidance is usually more general and open to interpretation.

‘‘While this process is often time-consuming, these procedural safeguards are in place for valid reasons,’’ Scullion said. Working outside that process might allow the government to respond more quickly to rapidly changing technology, but that approach would likely come at the expense of thoroughness, he said.

Mark Rosekind, NHTSA’s administrator, said the agency can’t wait because early self-driving technologies are already in cars on the road, including automatic emergency braking that can stop or reduce speed to avoid or mitigate a collision. Another safety option on some vehicles automatically steers vehicles back into their lanes if they start to drift without the driver first using a turn signal.

‘‘Everybody asks, ‘When are they going to be ready?’ I keep saying they’re not coming; they are here now,’’ Rosekind said.