Setting the course for driverless cars – Los Angeles Times

Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2016

President Obama doubled downon driverless cars this week, declaring that the federal government, not the states, should oversee the development of self-driving cars, trucks and buses. The president and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said that autonomous vehicles are too valuable for public safely and technological innovation to slow down with state-by-state regulations, or lengthy rule-making processes. And besides, self-driving technology is already on the road.

Witness Tesla’s semi-autonomous system, autopilot, which the carmaker added to its electric-powered sedans WHEN??? The system allows the vehicle to steer itself, change lanes, adjust speed and even find a parking space and parallel park. More recently, Uber rolled out a fleet of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. And major automakers say they will introduce fully autonomous models in the next couple of years.

The Obama administration’s automated vehicles policy attempts to impose some safety standards on a technology that is rapidly evolving and largely unregulated. Until now, there has been no federal guidance on the use of this sort of technology — whether partially autonomous, like Tesla’s autopilot function, or fully self-driving, like Google’s steering-wheel-less prototype. Nor have there been standardized tests for cars to pass before they could hit the road. Car manufacturers have been allowed to decide when to roll out autonomous features, restrained only by the fear of liability if they failed.

In the absence of federal guidelines, states had started developing a confusing patchwork of rules for driverless cars. Some states and cities have taken a completely hands-off approach, essentially allowing public roads to become uncontrolled laboratories for vehicle safety experiments. Others have looked at tighter controls. California, for example, proposed regulations that would require every autonomous vehicle to come equipped with a steering wheel and brake pedal, and be operated with a licensed driver ready to seize the controls at any moment. But some proponents argue that humans are unreliable back-ups, so the state’s proposal would let automakers introduce driverless vehicles that weren’t safe enough.

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