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President Barack Obama makes his case for self-driving cars

Transportation Sec'y Foxx Discusses Future Transportation Trends With Google CEO
US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (R) and Google Chair Eric Schmidt (L) walk around a Google self-driving car.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Self-driving cars are here, whether we’re ready or not. President Barack Obama released an op-ed trying to assure the public we will be prepared.

"The quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies," Obama wrote in a column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where Uber deployed a fleet of self-driving a cars in August — albeit with an Uber engineer in each car — to test its new technology on a commercial platform. Obama continued, announcing the US Department of Transportation’s new policy overview for autonomous vehicles:

Right now, too many people die on our roads – 35,200 last year alone – with 94 percent of those the result of human error or choice. Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year. And right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives. …

That’s why my administration is rolling out new rules of the road for automated vehicles – guidance that the manufacturers developing self-driving cars should follow to keep us safe. And we’re asking them to sign a 15-point safety checklist showing not just the government, but every interested American, how they’re doing it.

The DOT’s comprehensive policy overview on self-driving cars, released Tuesday, presents safety guidelines for self-driving car manufacturers — from data recording to crashworthiness and cybersecurity — in addition to distinguishing federal and state government responsibilities and outlining the existing and possibly new regulatory tools necessary to monitor self-driving cars.

The rules, as outlined by the DOT, show the real and ambitious nature of the autonomous car industry. Autonomous cars are no longer a futuristic vision. They are on the roads, becoming available to the general public — and the government wants to make sure the people, and the government, are ready.

Self-driving cars are happening. Americans aren’t quite ready.

Autonomous vehicles have quickly transitioned from an innovation of the future to a present reality. In August, Uber announced a $300-million deal with Volvo to build a new model of AVs; across the world, innovators are pouring billions of dollars into AV technology.

Countless experts and elected officials are excited about the prospect of self-driving cars. As the president presented in his column, the technology has the potential to minimize accidents and make the American public more mobile. But it also has the potential to substantially impact into the American workforce, "create new jobs and render other jobs obsolete," Obama writes.

According to a Vox/Morning Consult poll, Americans aren’t quite convinced the benefits outweigh the risks. My colleague Timothy Lee reports:

More Americans say they they’re more worried about the prospect of self-driving cars than excited. They’re afraid that the technology will take jobs away from taxi and truck drivers, and they’re skeptical that the technology will save lives as supporters claim. Overall, just 32 percent believe that self-driving cars will improve the driving experience, compared to 48 percent who don’t think so.

But ready or not, self-driving cars are happening — and as Vox’s David Roberts points out, Obama’s statement and the new policy overview is a "sign of a more nimble DOT, which will definitely be necessary in the coming age of AVs."

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