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The government won’t stand in the way of driverless cars

Watching a film while crawling through traffic at 10 mph could soon become a part of everyday life.

Carmakers have been given the green light to push ahead with driverless vehicles, with the Obama administration on Tuesday announcing guidelines for manufacturers to follow.

It’s the first time the federal government has given the thumbs up to autonomous cars, which it sees as crucial to improving road safety and reducing accidents going forward.

“Ninety-four percent of crashes on U.S. roadways are caused by a human choice or error,” said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Dr. Mark Rosekind. “We are moving forward on the safe deployment of automated technologies because of the enormous promise they hold to address the overwhelming majority of crashes and save lives.”

The guidelines issue by the Department of Transportation are not binding (it would need to be passed into law for this) but lay out a path for carmakers to follow. They’re designed to ensure models follow similar safety procedures while not stifling free market innovation.

The department wants manufacturers to follow a 15-point safety assessment for automated vehicles, which would cover the “safe design, development, testing and deployment” of driverless cars.

The guidance also calls on states to get moving on coming up with their own driverless car policies, as well as opening the door to future regulation of the mode of transport as new technologies are created.

The New York Times reports that the regulations “signal to motorists that automated vehicles would not be a Wild West where companies can try anything without oversight, but were also vague enough that automakers and technology companies would not fear overregulation.”

Companies including Google, Uber, Tesla and Ford have been trialing self-driving technology for a while now, with a view to eventually rolling it out across the country, The Verge reports.

How do driverless cars work?

Automated cars use a variety of cameras, sensors and other tech to follow the rules of the road, and unlike human drivers they do not disobey, for example, warning signs to slow down or to stay in a lane.

The Telegraph reports cars are fitted with radar sensors that monitor the positions of nearby vehicles; video cameras that detect traffic lights, read road signs and look out for pedestrians/other obstacles; and “lidar” sensors that detect the edges of roads and identify lane markings. Ultrasonic sensors meanwhile can detect curbs and other vehicles when parking.

Finally, all of this data is analyzed by a central computer, which uses the information to direct steering, acceleration and braking.

The idea of handing over control of your car to a machine might be discomforting and very Skynet, especially considering autonomous carmakers had their first setback in May. That’s when a Tesla test driver was killed while the car was on autopilot and failed to recognize an oncoming semi (though the technology is in trial stages right now, and the company says at no point should you be inattentive).

The driver, the Guardian reports, was watching a Harry Potter film at the time.

But the government is confident that ultimately the benefits of driverless cars will outweigh the risks, particularly when it comes to safety, with National Economic Council director Jeffrey Zients telling the New York Times it will save “time, money and lives.”

“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” he said.

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