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Robot cars probably won't happen, sniffs US transport chief

Autonomous automobiles? Not on the NTSB chairman's watch

Fully autonomous cars may never reach public roads, according to the chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board.

Speaking in an interview with MIT Technology Review, Christopher Hart said: “I'm not confident that we will ever reach that point. I don’t see the ideal of complete automation coming any time soon.”

Hart’s comments go against the trend of major companies spearheading the development of autonomous cars.

Last month Ford announced its plans to make fully automated driverless vehicles available for commercial car-sharing by 2021.

Ford isn’t the only company hoping to offer a fully automated carpool service. Google, Uber, Lyft and Tesla are also in the race. So far, Uber has come closest to reaching its goal. It has become one of the first major companies to begin a trial of autonomous taxis on public roads for people in Pittsburgh. The taxis aren't fully autonomous, however, and still require a driver to be present.

The road to autonomous vehicles hasn’t been completely smooth, however. Tesla made headlines as two drivers were involved in car accidents – one of whom was killed.

“Some people just like to drive. Some people don't trust the automation so they're going to want to drive. [And] there’s no software designer in the world that's ever going to be smart enough to anticipate all the potential circumstances this software is going to encounter,” Hart said.

The problem of whom the car should harm in the situation of an inevitable crash has also been raised.

“I can give you an example I've seen mentioned in several places. My automated car is confronted by an 80,000 pound truck in my lane. Now the car has to decide whether to run into this truck and kill me, the driver, or to go up on the sidewalk and kill 15 pedestrians. That would [have to] be put into the system,” Hart said.

These are problems the federal government will have to address, he added.

Hart points to the strict approach taken by the Federal Aviation Administration. A safety scheme ensures that aviation companies must offer a second plan for an event that has a chance of happening more than one in a billion times.

“That same process is going to have to occur with cars. I think the government is going to have to come into play and say, “You need to show me a less than X likelihood of failure, or you need to show me a fail-safe that ensures that this failure won't kill people,” Hart said. ®

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