Self driving cars are moving closer to reality as a research initiative to determine the safety and reliability of the technology prepares to launch in the US.

During an industry gathering sponsored by Swedish automaker Volvo and the Swedish Embassy in Washington, David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said automated vehicles are the next evolutionary step in car technology and they hold the potential to save thousands of lives. His agency has already engaged extensive discussions with automakers and Google about the path to consumer adoption.

Strickland noted that human error was a factor in around 90% of the over 33,000 traffic deaths on American roads in 2010. That is expected to drop drastically once computers take the wheel, but changes in how vehicle safety is regulated are still required. So far three US states – Nevada, Florida and California – have authorized testing of automated cars on their roads to help the technology and regulation around it mature.

Currents tests involve the driver ceding control of the vehicle to its computers but still require one person to take manual control when necessary and another to monitor the course plotted by the computer system.

Google has already logged over 300,000 miles in testing, accumulating all that experience and putting it back into the vehicle. Meanwhile, Volvo has been testing vehicle-to-vehicle communications and plans to introduce a "traffic jam assist" system in 2014 that will let a car follow the vehicle in front of it in low-speed (up to 30 mph) situations, making acceleration, braking and steering corrections as needed without input from the driver.

Besides the potential for general road safety, self-driving cars could provide a convenient means of transportation for people with physical limitations – as highlighted by Google in the video below.

So, when will people get to buy self-driving cars? Google is certainly moving fast but a lot more work is required to make sure the technology is safe in complicated driving situations. Strickland declined to say when the government might propose safety standards for automated cars.