AFTER YEARS OF silence on the issue of autonomous vehicles, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced this afternoon that he’s giving the DOT six months to draft comprehensive rules governing how autonomous cars should be tested and regulated. The feds are also planning to fund new projects: President Obama’s 2017 budget proposal includes nearly $4 billion over 10 years for pilot programs testing connected vehicle systems.
It’s a bold step automakers and others working on self-driving tech are likely to welcome, because they’ve long fretted that states would do what the feds have not, and create a patchwork of rules and regulations that could hamper development of the technology.
“This is an aggressive and ambitious embrace of automated driving,” says Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society, who studies self-driving vehicles.
The DOT is all about the safety benefits self-driving cars could bring—the current human system comes with more than 30,000 traffic deaths a year—but it’s been slow to take tangible action. The last official word from the Department of Transportation came in May 2013, in the form of a tentative policy encouraging states to allow testing of the technology, but no more.
There are two key points to Foxx’s announcement today. First, the DOT plans to create model legislation, to encourage nationally consistent rules. Second, it’s pledging to be open to what the companies actually making this technology think.
In the past few years, an early wave of attempts to corral autonomous technology has created a patchwork of rules. Nevada, California, Michigan, Florida, and Washington, D.C. have adopted laws regulating how self-driving car are tested and sold. Not surprisingly, these rules are inconsistent. Nevada, for example, requires a special license and registration, but that only applies to vehicles sold in the state. Florida’s law is mostly useless, saying the state “does not prohibit or specifically regulate the testing or operation of autonomous technology.”
That’s not a major problem right now. With so few vehicles going through testing in just a few places, automakers and others can take the time to figure out what rules they need to follow and where. But when the technology is ready for customers, that changes. No automaker wants to build a car that has to meet 50 different sets of rules or more. It’s a logistical nightmare, and automakers are public about how much they want to avoid it.
“The technology benefits for uniformity from state to state and between states and the federal regulations,” says Audi spokesperson Brad Stertz. Sean Walters, director of compliance and regulatory affairs at Daimler, which introduced an autonomous 18-wheeler last May, agrees: “National standards are critical to the trucking industry, especially with respect to new and innovative technologies.”
The DOT, though, can’t just whip up some rules and apply them to all 50 states. The feds control how cars are made—they can require airbags and seat belts, for example—but it’s the states that regulate how vehicles behave, through the power of traffic laws. Self-driving cars blur that distinction—how they drive is a direct result of how they’re made. “Most of the laws that will permit automated vehicles are going to be state laws,” Foxx told WIRED in November.
That reinforces the need for logical rules that would be amenable to all the parties involved, which is why Foxx is talking about working with the states and industry partners to “develop model state policy on automated vehicles that offers a path to a consistent national policy.”
“We are optimistic about the Obama administration’s plan to support the introduction of autonomous cars,” says a spokesperson for Lyft, which recently announced a plan to work with GM on a fleet of autonomous cars. “We look forward to continuing to work with federal, state, and local governments to shape the future of mobility.”2
The news from Foxx’s DOT marks a tack away from the typical federal approach to regulating cars. Historically, NHSTA has been a reactive regulator: It lets the industry develop technology, then, once it knows what’s going on, creates new rules addressing it (for example, that everyone now needs airbags). “You’re gonna see us shifting a little bit,” Foxx says. In December, NHSTA announced plans to change crash safety standards, requiring the use of active safety features to earn a perfect five-star rating. It’s a new way of encouraging technology that’s leading us toward fully autonomous cars, like forward collision warnings and lane keeping features.
source: wired.com by