Like it or not, a future filled with semi-autonomous (and eventually, fully-autonomous) automobiles is coming.

For all the complaining from enthusiasts (ourselves included), there’s no denying that self-driving cars will improve safety for today’s attention-impaired drivers, as well as delivering mobility to those who can no longer drive themselves.

Volvo has been a leader in the field of autonomous cars, acting as one of the driving forces (no pun intended) behind Europe’s SARTRE (SAfe Road TRains for the Environment) project.

As a result of its research, Volvo is working with Europe’s Car 2 Car Communication Consortium to develop a framework for Car-2-Car and Car-2-Object communication, an essential step in the development of self-driving cars.

The first tangible result of this research will be Volvo’s traffic jam assistance system, which will allow future Volvos to automatically follow the vehicle in front of them at speeds up to 50 km/h (31 mph).

In the words of Peter Mertens, Volvo’s senior VP of research and development, “This technology makes driving more relaxed in the kind of monotonous queuing that is a less attractive part of daily driving in urban areas. It offers you a safe, effortless drive in slow traffic.”

Expected to be ready for implementation in 2014, the system is an evolution of existing adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist technology. As with current cruise control systems, the driver remains in charge of the vehicle at all times, and can actively brake, steer or accelerate without delay.

While the technology may be ready for implementation by 2014, the laws that govern it may not be. Volvo is petitioning the U.S. government to create a federal framework for laws relating to autonomous cars; without it, the fear is that rules may vary by state.

In Mertens’ words, “It is important that the U.S. Government underlines that regulation of motor vehicle safety systems and components is their jurisdiction. NHTSA research on the issues associated with autonomous vehicles could be the first step toward adoption of performance ratings on technology for autonomous driving.”

SARTRE self-driving cars during testing

SARTRE self-driving cars during testing

“It is also crucial that state legislation doesn't restrict the use of active safety and support systems, “ Mertens said, “They should be explicitly excluded from the definition of autonomous driving.”

Since several states, including California, Nevada and Florida now have provisions to allow autonomous vehicles on public roads, federal action is needed without delay to prevent the very scenario Mertens fears.

While Volvo may be one of the first automakers fighting this battle, we suspect they won’t be alone for long. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Cadillac all have dogs in this hunt, so we expect to see them vocalize an opinion in the very near future, too.