How is the government getting ready for autonomous vehicles?

The development of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is picking up pace, with small-scale testing and rollouts happening in some states already. The government, so far, seems to have largely been a bystander in all this, watching from the sidelines as private companies conceptualize, develop and test the technology.

However, with AVs set to dramatically upend industries, urban landscapes and transportation systems, the government has taken on an important managerial role. Agencies have been working behind the scenes to prepare the groundwork for what could be an autonomous revolution. Today, policymakers are taking a number of important regulatory steps to minimize the disruption caused AVs and make their integration into current systems smoother.

A new regulatory framework

One of the government's primary responsibilities regarding AVs is building out a regulatory framework to best manage this emerging technology. With that goal in mind, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) collaborated with leading industry stakeholders to devise a comprehensive plan to best integrate AVs into the current transportation system.

The DoT's regulatory objectives consist of two main strands. Firstly, it aims to remove or modify any redundant regulations that impede the development of AVs. The purpose here is to give maximal space to private manufacturers to design the safest and most efficient AVs possible to make them suitable for use in the shortest amount of time. This includes streamlining the current process of asking private companies to seek approval for road tests in order to make it easier for them to test AV technology in live settings.

Safety will be a top priority of any regulatory reform. In collaboration with the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) and industry leaders, the Department of Transportation has also committed itself to devising a set of basic safety standards that will apply to all AVs to ensure that they're as safe as they're being advertised.

A bird's eye view of a traffic intersection.Road systems will likely need to be redesigned to accommodate autonomous vehicles.

Preparing the transportation system

There are important infrastructure arrangements for the government to consider as well. The widespread use of AVs could bring dramatic changes to road systems across the country, presenting a myriad of new challenges that could complicate their integration.

Road signs present one such challenge. The characteristics of each state's road signs can vary significantly, including major differences in shape, size and color. This poses a problem to manufacturers that are trying to produce AVs, the operability of which depends on their capacity to accurately scan and interpret sensory input. The government is currently exploring the possibility of standardizing road signs in every state to help AVs better navigate their surroundings.

Issues surrounding border crossings present another issue for the government, which is solely responsible for monitoring checkpoints. Indeed, in 2017, two auto manufacturers teamed up to send an AV across the border into Canada, immediately sparking questions about the practicality of sending a driverless vehicle through a checkpoint where human drivers are often asked to provide personal documents and information, according to Car and Driver. While the DoT has committed itself to exploring this issue, progress appears to be slow.

Testing, testing, testing

Through NHTSA, the DoT is working with several dozen companies, associations and state governments to test AVs in several cities across the country, according to Insurance Journal. The purpose of this program is to gather safety and performance information that can be used to better develop the technology, and also more appropriately respond to the possible influx of AVs on the road in the coming years.

Importantly, many of the states that now participate in the program include those in colder, harsher climates. Bad weather presents inherent problems for AVs. They rely on a complex system of cameras and sensors to navigate the roads, but the image that system creates can become severely distorted when the weather gets bad, making them less safe. Private companies have so far done little to overcome these deficiencies, focusing on testing their models in warm weather regions.

But this testing program is a sign that the government is taking this issue seriously and could be collecting crucial data that could make AVs better suited to harsher weather conditions.

A better and safer way forward

While private companies like Amazon, Uber and Tesla headline industry news as some of the leaders of AV development, the DoT has been working quietly but steadily to get the ground ready for their likely eventual rollout.

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