Driverless cars face regulatory roadblock


Automakers and tech companies are charging ahead with driverless cars, but some fear that they could hit a major roadblock: a patchwork of local regulations.

Michigan just backed legislation that would allow self-driving car tests without humans, while Chicago is proposing to ban autonomous vehicles entirely and New York still requires one hand on the wheel at all times. 

{mosads}The conflicting rules paint a murky picture of the future regulatory landscape, which could hamper innovation, deployment and public trust in driverless cars.

“If we are going to put laws in place that hinder the progress, than it’s likely that countries like China will grab the lead,” Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), co-chair of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, said in a telephone interview.

“But this [debate] is going to continue. I’m sure when the first cars were being produced, moving from the horse-drawn carriage, there were debates about what the local laws should be.”

The Department of Transportation (DOT) was supposed to unveil  guidance for states this summer and provide a better sense of the federal framework for autonomous vehicles. Secretary Anthony Foxx has said he hopes to shed light on which aspects of regulation should be uniform across the country and which could be done on a state-by-state basis.

Currently, there are no overarching federal laws specifically governing self-driving vehicles. But the guidance, which is expected to drop soon, will not be taking the form of a formal mandate.

“It would be helpful to have some recommendations,” Lipinski said. “It could give local lawmakers a little more confidence about what is safe right now.”

In the absence of federal guidance, dozens of states and localities are pressing ahead with their own laws governing the operation and deployment of self-driving cars.

One of the most restrictive proposals so far came this week from the Chicago City Council, where an alderman is proposing an ordinance that would prohibit any autonomous vehicles from operating on the city’s roads.

Aldermen Edward M. Burke said in a press release that “we do not want the streets of Chicago to be used as an experiment that will no doubt come with its share of risks, especially for pedestrians.”

“It’s disappointing to see some members of Chicago’s City Council are considering a preemptive ban on new technology and investment that can transform mobility for the elderly and disabled, cut traffic and congestion on our streets, and improve public safety,” said David Strickland, spokesman and general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.

“We are committed to finding appropriate policy solutions that support safe testing and development of this technology without closing the door on innovation and investment in our cities.”

California issued draft regulations last year to require a licensed driver to be present in a driverless car to assume liability, along with requiring a steering wheel and pedals in automobiles.

In New York, there is a law on the books – crafted long before the emergence of driverless cars – that requires one hand to be on the steering wheel at all times.

But it’s not just pedal and steering wheel rules that affect autonomous technology.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute published a report examining every state-level “following too closely” driving law, which could restrict “platooning” technology that allows automated vehicles to travel close together at high speeds to mitigate traffic.

The findings underscore how many current regulations will likely need to be rewritten – along with drafting new laws – in order to truly bring driverless vehicles to the masses.

For supporters of driverless vehicles, however, there are some emerging bright spots around the country.

The Michigan Senate passed a bill this month, which is on track for final passage later this year, that would no longer require a human driver behind the wheel of self-driving test cars.

And lawmakers in Arizona and Pennsylvania are considering similar rules that would permit autonomous vehicles to operate on the streets without drivers.

But even though proponents are encouraged by some of the innovation-friendly regulations, they worry about the messy and confusing patchwork that the more restrictive laws could create.

“What happens when you cross state lines?” Lipinski said.

So far, the varying rules don’t appear to be slowing down efforts by automakers and tech firms. Uber just started using semi-autonomous vehicles for its fleets in Pittsburgh, and Ford has promised to build a fully driverless car by 2021.

But supporters still want to see more uniformity – which they call key to the widespread adoption of self-driving cars.

‘“If every state is left to go its own way without a unified approach, operating self-driving cars across state boundaries would be an unworkable situation,” Chris Urmson, former chief technology officer of Google’s self-driving car project, said at a Senate hearing earlier his year. A patchwork would “hinder safety innovation, interstate commerce, national competitiveness, and the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles.”

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