On Monday, federal regulators signaled that they are ready to encourage the development of autonomous driving systems by issuing a set of 15 guidelines for self driving cars. The guidelines are a signal to the automotive industry that the goverment wants to encourage innovation in the technologies that will make self driving cars a reality. “We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” said Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, adding that highly automated vehicles “will save time, money, and lives.”
Zients and Department of Transportation chief Anthony Foxx introduced the new guidelines during a joint presentation. They are intended to be the foundation on which automakers can build their self driving protocols. Actual regulations may be issued in the future, but for now the government prefers to encourage development without mandating specific technological standards.
Foxx said states will continue to regulate the licensing of drivers and insurance. But he affirmed the agency’s oversight of the software technology used in driverless cars. “What we are trying to do is avoid a patchwork of state laws,” Mr. Foxx said. If states were to impose conflicting or incompatible rules on car makers, that could stiffle innovation and investment.
The 15 point safety guidelines cover a range of issues, including how driverless cars should react if their technology fails, what measures to put in place to preserve passenger privacy, and how occupants will be protected in crashes. They also include how automakers should approach the digital security of driverless vehicles and how a car can communicate with passengers and other road users.
Google, Uber and Lyft all hailed the guidelines. “State and local governments also have complementary responsibilities and should work with the federal government to achieve and maintain our status as world leaders in innovation,” said David Strickland, general counsel for the Self Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a trade group all three companies belong to.
On Monday, President Obama published an editorial in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about self-driving cars, saying they could save tens of thousands of lives a year and that the new policy is “flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.” Earlier this year, the president proposed spending about $4 billion for driverless car research and development over the next 10 years.
The Department of Transportation wants to encourage manufacturers to show how their technology is validated and how they will share data collected by their vehicles. It says it will retain and use its authority to recall semi-autonomous and fully autonomous vehicles that it deems to be unsafe.
The guidelines are not as specific as the safety requirements imposed on conventional vehicles that are on the road today. “We left some areas intentionally vague because we wanted to outline the areas that need to be addressed and leave the rest to innovators,” said Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Ready or not, driverless cars are coming. There are more than 32,000 fatalities from traffic accidents on American roads each year and that number is going up as lower gas prices encourage people to drive further and more often. Of course, reducing deaths is not the same as eliminating them. Some people expect a flood of lawsuits when computers fail to prevent traffic accidents and fear that litigation may inhibit the arrival of autonomous driving technology.
The guidelines issued this week may help the courts determine if a manufacturer was in compliance with industry norms. If so, claims of wrongful conduct may be avoided. But it would be wrong to assume that trial lawyers and courts will not have a say in how autonomous driving technology proliferates in American society.
Source: The New York Times. Photo credit: Ford