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Self-Driving Cars in 10 Years? How $4B Could Make it a Reality

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The White House wants to spend nearly $4 billion on self-driving cars, a move some experts say could help put extra horsepower behind autonomous vehicles and have them cruising America's streets within the next 10 years.

"That is a serious amount of money," Wendy Ju, executive director of Stanford's Center for Design Research, told NBC News.

If those dollars make it into the budget, the money would be used for "pilot programs to test connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country," according to the Department of Transportation.

While autonomous cars have made forays into the real world, testing is conducted with drivers behind the wheel or in closed environments like MCity in Michigan.

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The $3.9 billion could be used to test fleets of self-driving vehicles on existing city streets, Ju said, or experiment with roads and highways outfitted with special equipment to help autonomous cars navigate.

Either way, the money could be vital in getting researchers, private industry and local governments to work together. That is what happened when the Defense Department's research arm, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), funded the first Grand Challenge in 2004.

That race promised $1 million to the first self-driving car that finished a 142-mile race course that stretched across the California and Nevada deserts. None of the 15 entrants made it all the way.

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But the contest inspired people who were already working in the fields of artificial intelligence, advanced sensors and other areas to coordinate their efforts and work toward a common goal.

"That contest did a lot for autonomous vehicle technology," Ju said. When DARPA held its third race in 2007, six cars crossed the finish line — including one from the winner, a team from Carnegie Mellon University led by Raj Rajkumar, who remains a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the school.

"I really like the size of the investment," Rajkumar told NBC News. "I think it's good for the technology and for society at large."

With the help of the $4 billion investment, he thinks the public could have access to self-driving cars within a decade. Ju agrees. But there are plenty of challenges on the road ahead.

Taking research to the next level

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has broken down the process of creating driverless capabilities into four levels of automation. Most people have experience with level two, which includes things like cruise control.

Right now, Google is testing cars at level three. That means they still have a person behind the wheel in case things go wrong. The fourth stage is for the cars to drive with total autonomy, something that is well within reach, the experts interviewed by NBC News said.

"Making a car that can drive in a straight line and not bump into things — that technology already exists," Ju said.

Autonomous vehicles need better sensors, especially for driving in inclement weather. They also need to be better at driving alongside human drivers and pedestrians. Google's self-driving cars get in accidents not because they malfunction, but because they drive too cautiously.

That technology could probably be perfected by universities and corporations without $4 billion of government money, according to Frank Gillett, industry analyst at Forrester Research.

The money could, however, help resolve liability and regulatory problems, and allow local governments to explore how they can adapt existing infrastructure to make their roads safer for self-driving cars.

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Even if self-driving vehicles become affordable for individual consumers and companies like Uber or Lyft, they will have to share the road with human drivers for a long time — a transition Gillett compared to when early cars drove alongside horses.

"At the beginning, if you wanted to drive a car on the road, you had to have a person precede you swinging a lamp to warn away the horses," Gillett told NBC News.

In other words, it's going to take some getting used to, and once a self-driving car causes an injury, there will be a lot of questions about who to hold liable.

Perhaps more important than the $4 billion, Gillett said, is the White House's goal of creating national regulatory guidelines for states to follow.

Right now, states have wildly different laws concerning autonomous vehicles. That is a big problem for automakers, who don't want to create cars that can be sold only in California and a few other states.

Rajkumar would like to see a corridor across the Midwest and East Coast that would allow companies to test cars on long road trips across varying terrain and weather conditions.

He expressed pride that researchers in the U.S. invented the technology, and hoped the $4 billion could help the country maintain its edge in the field. Ju seconded that sentiment.

"We would like to see this happen here before it happens in Europe or Japan or Korea," she said.

The end game? Ju and Rajkumar envision a future where the elderly and people with disabilities can drive around safely, and traffic accidents can be significantly reduced.

"It's amazing what happened in a decade ago because of the DARPA Grand Challenge," Ju said. "Four billion dollars could help us make another big jump."