Climb into a self-driving car today and there’ll be a steering wheel right there where you’d expect, and probably a back-up driver, too, ready to step in should something go awry during the journey.
But General Motors’ (GM) autonomous-car unit — Cruise — wants to start testing its self-driving cars sans steering wheel. Indeed, it’s already produced a video (above) showing what such a design might look like.
At the current time, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulations, which were created at a time when self-driving cars were the stuff of science fiction, mean that vehicles have to include essential safety features such as a steering wheel and brake pedal. But the emergence of robot cars has put these rules under the spotlight.
According to a recent Reuters report, the NHTSA has confirmed it’s in talks with GM, which is asking for permission to test a limited number of autonomous cars without steering wheels or any other type of manual controls.
GM first raised the idea with the NHTSA at the beginning of 2018, and last week James Owens, the agency’s acting administrator, appeared to be warming to the idea.
“I expect we’re going to be able to move forward with these petitions soon — as soon as we can,” Owens told Reuters, adding that it would “definitely” arrive at a decision some time next year. He described the removal of manual controls from a self-driving car as “a big deal” because it would be the first time for such action to be taken.
But U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who has been discussing GM’s petition with the NHTSA, sounded a note of caution, noting how on a number of occasions autonomous-car companies have had to reevaluate their ambitious plans. Even GM said recently that it would have to delay the launch of a proposed robo-taxi service because its technology isn’t quite ready.
“I think the complexity was far greater than what a lot of very optimistic advocates were thinking,” Chao told Reuters.
Waymo, another leader in the field of autonomous cars, has also asked the NHTSA to remove requirements for steering wheels.
“NHTSA should move promptly to remove barriers while ensuring safety,” Waymo said in a letter that was submitted over the summer as part of a public comment period on new rules for self-driving vehicles.
At the present time, autonomous vehicles use modified versions of existing manual models, such as Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan, with the factory-installed steering wheels left in place. But in early tests of its technology, Alphabet-owned Waymo used a custom-built car dubbed the Firefly. The vehicle was originally designed without any manual controls, but Waymo had to add a steering wheel and brake pedal to comply with the current regulations.
Ditching the steering wheel and pedals would create additional space and allow for more creatively designed interiors. But the NHTSA needs to be satisfied that the technology is safe enough to allow for it to happen.