How Will Self-Driving Cars Be Regulated?

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Autonomous cars, self-driving cars, “robot” cars — no matter what you call them, these wonders of modern technology are coming to American roads, with companies like Google currently testing on public streets. But they’re not likely to become common sights on your everyday commute until the country tackles some important questions about risk, innovates its insurance model, and wrestles with what’s going to be a piecemeal upgrade from traditional cars to self-driving vehicles.

Right now, self-driving cars are being regulated almost completely at the state level. Despite a 2013 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) policy statement that talks about categories and descriptions of self-driving vehicles, many of the most visible regulations, including reporting requirements, are being handled by the few states that really have any significant volume of robot car testing being done on public roads.

The NHTSA insists it has the responsibility to regulate autonomous cars, and cites its research on braking systems, V2V (vehicle to vehicle) systems and other new technologies. “As NHTSA’s research and experience develop, NHTSA will determine whether it should encourage and/or require application of the most promising crash avoidance technologies through regulation,” the policy states.

Although the federal regulator might be doing a lot of this behind-the-scenes research, it is not currently coming out with concrete rules for handling collisions related to self-driving cars, leading to articles like this one from Wired. It spells out a lot of the troubling questions that the federal regulator’s work leaves for safety advocates, including the major issue of why states should be responsible for demanding reporting through their offices.

To add to the puzzle, as reported here, some companies, such as Google and Mercedes-Benz, told a 60 Minutes interviewer that their offices would accept liability in cases where an autonomous car is found to be at fault. But where is the regulation?

Of the handful of states taking initiative, California is number one, and it is likely to be the place where most of the regulations wrangling will occur.

In a recent press release, Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit at the vanguard of the push for more rules on driverless cars, announced how the California Department of Motor Vehicles has agreed to require public reporting of any roadway accident involving these computer-piloted vehicles.

The DMV lists all of these reports on its website. It’s easy to click on and view the interesting details of these incidents, as in this August 20 report from Google involving a stop at a pedestrian crosswalk. Many of these crashes are the fault of a human driver, not a self-driving car, but some of them involve the kinds of ambiguous cues that other drivers can take from a vehicle with a computer at the helm.

Privacy Policy Director at Consumer Watchdog, John Simpson, believes that future regulations should go beyond just requiring the companies to post reports of these accidents. He thinks that the police should be involved. “I think you really need a neutral third party,” says Simpson.

While he’s “delighted” that the DMV took the steps to acquire public reporting, Simpson suggests that the companies currently testing these autonomous cars might feel like self-reporting really isn’t in their best interests. At the same time, he explains, being able to look at more current information will help transportation departments make good choices on setting up future rules.

“We’ve been pushing very hard all along for as much transparency as possible,” Simpson says. His organization also wants to see event recorders in the vehicles as an additional means of verification. “I’m not a Luddite,” he added, noting that these new technologies may “improve safety tremendously,” provided they are introduced and monitored in common-sense ways.

The biggest problem, he says, is that even though there’s a lot of innovation being done, the vast majority of Americans are still driving traditional vehicles.

It’s not hard to imagine the enormous challenges and complexities that will face state and federal regulators as more self-driving cars come onto the scene. Perhaps the biggest problem is the issue of mixed adoption. Automakers have suggested that they will commit to putting items like sensor-based braking systems in all new vehicles, but consumers still have to buy these new products.

With nearly 30 years of automotive technology on the road at any one time, it’s not likely that any kind of upgrade is going to be a smooth process. Instead, we’re likely to see a lot more scrutiny of regulations that are currently pretty bare-bones, as self-driving cars remain the outlier for another couple of decades.

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