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Are we developing autonomous vehicles the wrong way?

Jan 18, 2016

The Volvo XC90, winner of the 2016 NAIAS Truck of the Year Award
Credit Volvo

Usually, the biggest buzz at the North American International Auto Show surrounds a vehicle.

This year, you could argue the big buzz was about a trend: The race toward self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that President Obama would seek $3.9 billion in the next federal budget to encourage the development of autonomous vehicles, which Foxx says show the potential to save thousands of lives.

Semi-autonomous vehicles are already on the road, with more to come.

Volvo's XC90 won the 2016 North American Truck of the Year Award. The SUV has a self-driving feature; it can stay in its own lane and keep pace with the car in front. (The driver has to keep their fingertips on the wheel.)

But there are critics – not of the ultimate goal, but the path to that goal.

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne says Google and car companies are wasting huge sums developing proprietary autonomous cars and technology, but the consumer won't see any distinctions in the end.

"It's colorless," he said during a press conference at the show. "You will not be able to recognize a car by the way it autonomously drives."

Marchionne says it would make a lot more sense for the industry to develop a single solution, and use the saved money for other things, like improving their profitability.

For his part, John Krafcik, the CEO of Google Self-Driving Cars, says the current slow rollout of semi-autonomous features encourages driver distraction.  

Google has a fleet of self-driving vehicles on the road, but the occupants must be ready to take control of the vehicle at a moment's notice.

That hasn't always happened. During an appearance at Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, Krafcik recounted one situation when an employee began setting up a laptop in the moving vehicle, taking his eyes off the road for an extended period.

Krafcik says this tendency to become more distracted, the more the car can do on its own, means the industry should quickly transition to fully autonomous to keep people safe.

Most experts believe fully self-driving cars will be a reality within four years.