DETROIT -- A computer-driven car may not be commercially viable for at least another decade, but federal regulators are taking it seriously.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched a research project to figure out what sort of cockpit controls would be appropriate for a human motorist in a computer-driven vehicle.
Tim Johnson, NHTSA’s director of crash avoidance and electronic controls research, said the agency would conduct the $1.75 million research project with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
The researchers want to design controls that would enable a motorist to let the computer do the driving, then take over safely if the computer is flummoxed by an unexpected event.
“That is the work we are starting up right now,” Johnson said here Tuesday, Oct. 16, during the SAE Convergence 2012 conference sponsored by SAE International. “We are putting a high priority on this. We are trying to figure this out.”
A number of automakers have tinkered with driverless cars, but the pace of research picked up after Google Inc. rolled out a radar-guided Toyota Prius and lobbied state legislatures to allow driverless vehicles on public roads.
Last month, the California Legislature passed a law to establish safety and performance standards for such vehicles.
Google founder Sergey Brin subsequently boasted that his company would have driverless cars available for the public within a decade. But panelists at the SAE conference suggested that it likely would take longer than that to develop a production-ready driverless vehicle.
“We don’t anticipate an autonomous car in the foreseeable future,” said Christian Schumacher, North American director of engineering systems for supplier Continental AG.
Continental has road-tested a driverless Volkswagen Passat, and a variety of automakers -- including Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Audi AG and BMW AG -- are developing vehicles that can guide themselves during low-speed traffic jams.
But such systems require the motorist to remain vigilant in case driving conditions suddenly change. Automakers have not yet figured out how to design a driverless car reliable enough to allow the driver to take a nap.
A robotic vehicle “would have to be a much better driver than a human,” said NHTSA’s Johnson. And a vehicle that good has yet to be designed.