WASHINGTON -- Self-driving cars could have huge benefits for drivers in the long run, but they should remain in the experimental phase for now, U.S. auto safety regulators say.
Nevada, California and Florida have all passed laws allowing car companies such as Toyota and Audi to test self-driving cars on public roads. Several other states are considering following suit.
In a policy statement released today, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it "has considerable concerns" about certain rules being drafted by states, and "does not recommend at this time that states permit operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing."
The stance suggests that regulators will not allow these cars to be widely used within the next few years, even though some developers -- such as the tech giant Google Inc., which is also working on the technology -- have suggested that fully self-driving cars may be as little as five years away from the market.
NHTSA said it will study self-driving vehicles so the agency "has the tools to establish standards for these vehicles, should the vehicles become commercially available." That research will be completed within four years, the agency said.
In a statement, outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted that federal researchers are studying other automated features that do not require the driver to give up control of the car. That includes automatic braking, which is already being sold in high-end cars, as well as fully self-driving cars, which are in the experimental phase.
"Whether we're talking about automated features in cars today or fully automated vehicles of the future," LaHood said, "our top priority is to ensure these vehicles -- and their occupants -- are safe."
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told a U.S. Senate committee earlier this month that the agency will decide by the end of 2013 whether to order automakers to put automatic braking technology into cars.