On Sept. 20, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its first official set of regulations regarding the manufacture and sale of self-driving cars. Based on the new rules, companies that are involved in building and testing self-driving cars will be required to share information with the federal government.
Even though self-driving and semiautomatic cars have already been used by people in some parts of the world, the regulations regarding the use of cars vary from state to state in the United States. However, the White House seems to realize that the technology is being developed very rapidly, and some steps have to be taken in order to resolve legal issues regarding the use of such vehicles.
In the newest 116-page policy, the NHTSA presented guidelines and rules regarding several aspects associated with the newest technology. The document points out issues, such as required cyber security preventing hackers from taking over the vehicles or the cars’ ability or the lack thereof to adjust to different laws in different states across the country.
The policy also includes information regarding ethically challenging situations in which it is hard to determine how the cars’ software should be designed in order to choose the best possible solution. For example, the cars should know what to do when a crash cannot be avoided, and they should choose the solution that minimizes the harm.
Nevertheless, one of the most important information included in the policy, is the requirement for the companies producing such vehicles to share crash and safety data with the federal government, as well as with different companies involved in the industry. The regulation has been established to improve the safety of self-driving cars. The information is supposed to help indicate the safety issues and, thus, avoid them by improving the design and functionality of the vehicles.
“As the digital era increasingly reaches deeper into transportation, our task at the U.S. Department of Transportation is not only to keep pace, but to ensure public safety while establishing a strong foundation such that the rules of the road can be known, understood, and responded to by industry and the public,” said Anthony R. Foxx, the Secretary of Transportation, according to the U.S Departments of Transportation’s official website.
One of the main problems related to the new policy is whether the companies will want to cooperate and share all the sensitive information with other companies and the government. The companies will have to follow a 15-point safety assessment to indicate the safety of their vehicles. Nevertheless, Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the NHTSA, indicated that the guidelines would most likely be mandatory through regulations, and the companies will have to cooperate in order to produce self-driving cars legally, according to theverge.com.
Safety is the most commonly mentioned concern in regards to the use of self-driving cars, and the government wants to make sure that giving permission for the cars use on public roads will not result in harm to the passengers, as well as other people on the roads. Therefore, the government wants to receive details about how the cars function, collect data, or avoid collisions, as mentioned before. Also, they want to know what happens when such cars crash and how these cars are protected against hacking and the government plans on publishing an annual report based on the collected data.
Despite all the concerns about the lack of safety of self-driving cars, some people indicate that vehicles operated by software, one day might be even safer than vehicles with a driver inside.
“A self-driving car can’t get drunk. A self-driving car can’t get distracted. And a self-driving car will follow the traffic laws and prioritize safety for pedestrians and bicyclists,” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of Mothers against Drunk Driving, according to trucks.com.
Since drunk driving and distractions, such as texting while driving are one of the main reasons for car crashes, eliminating those factors by replacing the drivers with software might profoundly decrease the number of car crashes. Nevertheless, as long as the cars are not entirely tested, it is unclear how safe the vehicles actually are and it will probably take some time until enough data to provide relevant statistics is collected.
Even though there are still many unknowns, more and more people are beginning to realize that self-driving cars are the future of transportation.
“Self-driving cars have the potential to save thousands of lives lost on the nation’s roads each year and to change the lives of the elderly and the disabled,” said President Barack Obama, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Not only the self-driving cars can change many people’s lives, but also they can help the traffic move more efficiently than ever before.
“Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like. We have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow,” added Obama in his editorial for post-gazette.com.
In fact, the driverless and semiautonomous cars have already gained popularity, and they have been present on the roads in the United States. One of the most popular manufacturer, and one of the pioneers of self-driving cars is Tesla which has already sold tens of thousands of cars that are capable of driving by themselves. The feature known as autopilot has been widely used by the customers, and so far, two fatal crashes resulting from the cars mistakes were reported: a crash in Florida and China.
Even though two crashes does not seem to be a large number when compared to how many cars with the autopilot feature have been sold, the crashes still resulted in rumors because people lost lives in the accidents. However, the Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, announced that the company would release new software for the cars, according to The New York Times. Musk indicates that the update includes improvements that could have helped to avoid the fatal crash that happened in Florida last May.
Tesla is not the only large company that decided to invest in self-driving cars. Other companies such as Uber, Google, or Apple have also invested in the technology. In fact, Uber, a company providing transportation services, has already launched trials that allowed the customers to order driverless cars in Pittsburg. At the same time, Google has also tested its own self-driving cars around its headquarters in California.
Because the driverless cars already exist, and they are used by many people, the policy regulating their use had to be created as soon as possible. The people in the White House realized that it is important to address issues related to the driverless cars before more accidents happen.
Apparently, even the definition of a car has to be addressed as it is no longer a vehicle with a driver inside. The newest policy includes a five-level scale indicating the level of a car’s automation, where on the level one the car is entirely operated by human while it is fully automatized on level five.
Perhaps, introducing the self-driving cars to the market on the large scale will invoke new questions. One of them might be if it will still be required for a driver to have a driver’s license if the cars are fully automated. Nevertheless, the policy will most likely be changed once the market becomes larger and new issues arise.
“Going forward, we will conduct significant public outreach to inform our next update to this Policy. We very much look forward to the dialogues that will emerge in the coming weeks and months and thank you in advance for helping us,” said Foxx, according to U.S. Department of Transportation.
Changing the already existing laws in states that have already allowed using self-driving cars might be challenging, as well. Nevertheless, each state in the United States will have to follow the federal guidelines and change their internal policies to accord with the federal laws. Otherwise, if the cars do not fulfill the requirements presented in the policy issued by NHTSA, they might not be allowed on the roads.
However, if the technology continues to develop so fast, it is possible that in few years the roads will be full of cars operated by software rather than humans. Eliminating the drivers from the cars might result in a decline in the number of fatal crashes. In 2016, nearly 40,000 people died in car accidents in the United States, according to the National Safety Council.
In fact, self-driving cars have already received financial support from the White House. President Barrack Obama, as one of the most important propagators of the technology, has decided to boost the adoption of self-driving cars by creating a 10-year funding plan. The plan is supposed to be funded in the 2017 fiscal year, and its overall cost is $4 billion, according to Forbes.
Nevertheless, as safety is number one priority in this situation, the federal government admits that there is no room for mistakes.
“Both government and industry have a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. And make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road. We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety,” said Obama, according to post-gazette.com.