For over a century, we have been behind the wheel, making choices while we drive, and reacting to moment-by-moment situations and dangers. Autonomous vehicle technology could remove us from the driver’s seat — and for good reason. Unsurprisingly, driverless car regulations are somewhat behind the technology itself, but this hasn’t stopped automakers and technology companies from pushing forward with development.
Are Driverless Cars Legal Yet?
With varying degrees of success, we’ve already seen autonomous vehicles on the road, even though current legislation doesn’t specifically allow for it. Indeed, if autonomous vehicles meet federal motor vehicle safety standards, such as for lighting and steering, they can be approved for sale. Still, future driverless cars might not come with a steering wheel or require human direction at all, which wouldn’t meet with certain interpretations of the Geneva and Vienna Conventions regarding road traffic.
Clearly, some regulation is required to allow for driverless car technology to legally — and safely — hit the road. The U.S. Department of Transportation has set guidelines regarding the development and deployment of driverless cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will approve vehicles and technologies for use on the road that meet the policy.
Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (FAVP)
The FAVP lays out the groundwork for future autonomous vehicle development in the United States. This eliminates the confusion generated by the previous state-by-state policy development, and improves automakers’ ability to meet a common standard regarding the technology. Considering that road accidents account for over 30,000 deaths per year, nearly all of them due to human error, this NHTSA guidance could be a significant step forward in improving traffic safety for millions of drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and animals.
Some key points of the new policy include:
- Black Box Data: Autonomous vehicles should collect data regarding operation during both day-to-day drives and incidents, such as evasion maneuvers or collisions. The black box data can subsequently be analyzed to recreate failure and accident scenarios, as well as collect feedback to improve the technology.
- Cybersecurity: Understandably, in an age of electronic security risks, autonomous vehicles are high on the list of systems that require protection. Hardware and software developers need to ensure their systems are secure from attack and tampering.
- Crash Safety: Though driverless car systems hold the promise of better traffic safety, it’s understandable that the vehicles themselves should be crashworthy. We expect that autonomous vehicles will include many systems that we’re already accustomed to, such as federally mandated airbag and seat belt systems, anti-lock braking, and industry-standard crumple zones and safety cells.
- Ethics: This is the most difficult question to answer, even though it’s been 75 years since Isaac Asimov considered his “Three Laws of Robotics.” For example, if presented with the unenviable circumstance of deciding between crashing into a school bus full of kids or swerving into a telephone pole, it is imperative that driverless car logic makes the choice that aligns with human ethics.
While the federal guidance regarding the development of autonomous vehicles is still new, it should be noted that this certainly isn’t going to be the last word. If anything, more questions will reveal themselves as driverless car adoption becomes more widespread. Hopefully, the NHTSA’s new proactive approach will create safer roads than the reactive approach of previous generations.
Check out all the relays, sensors and switches
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ben has been taking things apart since he was 5, and putting them back together again since he was 8. After dabbling in DIY repairs at home and on the farm, he found his calling in the CGCC Automobile Repair program. After he held his ASE CMAT for 10 years, Ben decided he needed a change. Now, he writes on automotive topics across the web and around the world, including new automotive technology, transportation legislation, emissions, fuel economy and auto repair.