There has been a lot of talk — in the automotive industry and beyond — about what the future holds for automated, driverless vehicles, but much of that coming reality remains more than a little bit cloudy. The reason why is simple: Developers and auto manufacturers are dealing with a patchwork of local and state-level regulations while federal authorities take relatively little action to guide the national approach.
The twin questions many have had, then, are why this problem exists, and when it's going to be cleared up. Fortunately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced that it will finally seek public opinion on proposed regulations affecting some aspects of AV operations. According to The Associated Press, that's something many independent observers, including the National Transportation Safety Board, have been concerned with for some time. They argue that the hands-off approach of the NHTSA has created a confusing — and potentially dangerous — landscape in which developers may not have all the clarity they need to put the safest possible AVs on the nation's streets.
Specifically, the NHTSA is asking for input on rules related to sensors used in driverless vehicles, those that detect other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, road conditions, infrastructure and so on, the report said. Industry watchdogs say the timing of the request for public input is unexpected, as the 60-day period will effectively end around the same time the office transitions to the new administration under president-elect Joe Biden, after years of the Trump administration's laissez-faire approach despite calls for more action.
"The optimistic way of looking at it is the DOT finally decided that a zero oversight of the self-driving car industry was a bad idea," Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, told the AP.
Awaiting action from Congress
At the same time as the DOT is moving to finally create some kind of action on proposed rules for developers and automakers, observers are also awaiting more direct action from federal lawmakers, according to Electronic Design. With the business of Congress seemingly concluded for the 2020 calendar year, it's beginning to appear as though a national bill related to putting more controls on the development and use of automated vehicles won't appear until sometime in 2021 at the earliest.
At issue with a congressional bill is the question of how much the federal government should handle, and what should be left to the states, the report said. Broadly speaking, it's felt that there needs to be a distinction establishing that the federal government will control issues of vehicle safety, while states themselves will have control over licensing and registering these vehicles. However, the wrangling over what exactly falls into those two categories is what seems to be holding up the bill, despite the fact that there is a wide acknowledgement that the issue is growing more urgent all the time. More states and municipalities are now seeing vehicles with at least some autonomous features hit the streets each day, and without much direction at the national level, they may not be in a position to properly protect other road users without stepping outside the bounds of their power.
That's also a concern for the developers and manufacturers of such vehicles, because there may be liability issues that arise from unclear paths to putting these vehicles on the street in a legal sense, the report said.
"Congress must act to create a national framework that provides developers certainty and a clear path to deployment," Rep. Bob Latta, a Republican representing Ohio, said when introducing the latest round of legislation.
The market awaits, too
One of the issues for the future of AVs is that consumers currently seem more than a little hesitant to get involved, but those who favor a driverless future arriving sooner than later are quite enthusiastic about the promise, according to Property Casualty 360. That, obviously, includes developers, but in recent years they had to pump the brakes on their rollouts because of a bit of hubris on the part of programmers; they introduced technology that appeared to be ready for real-world use, but a number of high-profile accidents brought scrutiny and led to greater caution.
At the same time, auto insurers don't seem to know quite what to make of AVs, either, the report said. There are a number of considerations that could reasonably affect liability, but it's not currently clear how those will be resolved anytime soon, and that kind of reticence is also present among auto manufacturers. So now, the public and various industries alike are playing a game of wait-and-see. While recent industry surveys show that more than half of businesses believe that their entire fleets of vehicles will be fully autonomous by 2040, three-quarters of motorists say they would still rather control a vehicle on their own than let the system handle the driving for them.
Interestingly, this perhaps isn't due to concerns about the safety of such systems, though that would certainly be a consideration, the report said. Instead, more than 7 in 10 respondents said they would miss the experience of driving.
In the near future
Of course, the above note about the transition from the Trump to Biden administrations looms large over the entire sector, according to Freight Waves. Almost universally, experts predict that the DOT under Biden will be far less lax about how it regulates the rollout, testing and use of driverless vehicles or features. However, despite the fact that "regulation" is often a dirty word in many aspects of the business world, it seems in this case, the change would be well-received.
"We welcome strong and clear safety-focused regulations at the local, state and federal levels that are necessary to provide the industry and consumers the confidence needed to roll out this transformative technology," Shawn Kerrigan, COO and co-founder of the self-driving trucking technology company Plus, told the site.
So while it's not exactly clear just what the future holds for the transition to a driverless future, what is growing increasingly obvious is that this is a sector crying out for more direction from the federal government. Sometime in 2021, it seems likely that this wish will be granted.
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