One week after Google made a splash with a demo of the latest iteration of its self-driving cars, we learned about the company’s plans to produce a limited number of custom-built prototypes with no steering wheels or control pedals. Right on its heels came news that California plans to issue driver’s licenses to experimental self-driving cars.
What didn’t garner as much attention was the banal side of the equation: a seemingly small change in U.S. federal government rules that could end up having a tremendous impact on the further development of the self-driving car. Last Thursday, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told the Detroit News that in response to inquiries from companies doing autonomous vehicle research, the qualifications for getting a loan via the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program have been amended to include makers of driverless cars.
Moniz demurred when asked about a timetable for new disbursements from the high risk/reward program that has roughly $16 billion to lend. Though the program has a stellar track record—with notable successes including Elon Musk’s electric vehicle startup Tesla Motors—the government tightened its grip on the purse strings after Solyndra, another of the program’s recipients, went bankrupt in 2011.
If the current trend, with Google getting maximum governmental cooperation, persists, Google and its ilk will find a way to loosen those purse strings when the companies are ready to make the transition from using their own cash on experimental vehicles to getting government backing for, say, a limited number of custom-built prototypes.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.