Setting the course for driverless cars – Los Angeles Times
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.
The guidance from the Department of Transportation, which was developed in less than a year (warp speed for a government agency), is meant to prevent states from creating a mishmash of regulations, at least where automobile safety and performance standards are concerned. The new federal guidelines say the states can still license human drivers and register vehicles — autonomous or otherwise. And states would still enact and enforce traffic laws. But the federal government would oversee the development, testing and safety of the vehicles themselves.
To that end, the DOT created a 15-point safety checklist that asks manufacturers to document everything from how the driverless vehicle performs and abides by traffic laws, to what it would do after a crash, and how the manufacturer trains passengers to use the car. These are guidelines, not mandates, and thus voluntary. As President Obama wrote in a op-ed in the Pittsburg Post–Gazette, the federal government is asking manufacturers to sign a 15-point safety checklist before offering their cars to the public. Not requiring.
That’s the right approach, given the furious pace of driverless-car development. A formal rulemaking could have taken several years. (Look at California, where the Department of Motor Vehicles has been working on autonomous vehicle regulations since 2012, and a draft released last year is now being reworked.) In the meantime, current law allows the cars to hit the road even as the technology is rapidly evolving.
Consumer advocates worry that the DOT’s voluntary approach will allow unsafe products on the road. Yet it’s hard to imagine a manufacturer would risk its reputation, not to mention the potential for huge liability awards, by ignoring the federal government’s guidelines.
The Obama Administration has struck a reasonable balance, by establishing safety standards that automakers should meet before the cars hit the road. There are still questions, of course. Will states and cities be willing to loosen their regulatory grip over self-driving cars? Can regulators keep pace with the speed of innovation? And is the public and the economy ready for a transportation overhaul? Autonomous vehicles will ultimately make it safer and easier to move around people and goods, and that will be a tremendous benefit. The biggest challenge is preparing for this dramatic shift.