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Self-driving cars: coming to an area near you sooner than you think

Self-driving cars: coming to an area near you sooner than you think

In early June, House Energy and Commerce Republicans began work on legislation to introduce to Congress June 20th that will clarify the role of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration in the regulation of Autonomous Vehicles.

That’s right. Robot cars. And before you roll your eyes, let me remind you that they are already among us. Google-owned company Waymo has been testing AVs for years. Apple, Tesla, BMW, Volkswagen, GM, Ford, and Nissan are all racing to get self-driving cars into the public market. Volvo is partnered with Uber to make driverless ride-sharing a thing—though if you ask me, you need at least 2 people to share a ride.

But you may not be able to go straight to hands-free: the term “autonomous” has levels. The NHTSA’s Certification of Automated Driving Systems (ADS) goes from 1-5, with cars at level 1 requiring an alert human operator, and a level 5 vehicle requiring nothing other than navigation input from a passenger.

For AVs to hit the road, they must demonstrate safety at the same level, or greater than, traditional vehicles. NHTSA has issued an exemption from FMVSS (which requires brake pedals and steering wheels, among other things) for 2,500 test vehicles. This sounds like a lot, but if you consider the billions of hours required to be driven to demonstrate safety, 2,500 vehicles aren’t enough. One of the proposals on the table raises the exemption to 100,000 cars.

Some companies, like Tesla and Google, already have self-driving cars in some cities, and the benefits of widely available, fully autonomous cars could be huge for the elderly, the disabled, and the public transportation sector, not to mention reducing intoxicated driving deaths. However, you can’t regulate AVs like regular cars. So far, states have had to figure it out on their own. Maybe that won’t be the case much longer.

What is being proposed?

Many of the AV  proposals currently being discussed are geared toward allowing exemptions of current safety features requirements (like brake pedals and steering wheels) to allow testing, develop a framework for cross-industry information sharing (to avoid making the same mistake twice), and begin development of technology geared toward helping underserved populations (such as the elderly and the disabled).

One thing is clear: legislators from both sides of the House want to get self-driving cars on the road. However, how to regulate them may not be unanimously agreed upon.

Having a federal standard for AV manufacture and operation is going to be the major determining factor in how soon car manufacturers can move forward with tests and, possibly, production. If every state is allowed to impose regulations, driving an AV across state lines could pose a problem.

However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been reluctant to impose many standards that might slow development of budding technology, leaving AV largely unregulated for the moment. NHTSA mainly oversees licensing, registration, and road maintenance currently, not vehicle safety.

There is a lot of excitement surrounding this issue right now, and I can see why. Driverless cars may be coming to an area near you sooner than you think—for that matter, public transportation may be coming to an area near you (I live in a place where you can drive, or you can walk. End of list).

Can you see yourself in a car without a steering wheel? Or does the idea make you nervous? Tweet at me! @easyinternetnow, or @willreadforfood.