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Self-Driving Cars: U.S. House Panel Takes First Step to Regulate Autonomous Vehicles

This week, a subcommittee of the congressional Energy and Commerce Committee passed by voice vote a far-reaching proposal that would put the regulation of self-driving cars solidly into the hands of the federal government. Initially, the proposal would allow carmakers to deploy as many as 100,000 self-driving cars — also called autonomous vehicles, or AVs — without meeting current safety standards. As reported by Reuters, the proposal would also prohibit states from imposing their own AV rules.

All but ignoring the AV issue until the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a set of guidelines for testing AVs last fall, the U.S. government now seems poised to assume complete oversight of the developing technology. One key area in which the new measure differs from last fall’s guidelines is that it no longer requires automakers to obtain pre-market approval of each new autonomous technology before introducing it into an AV. Carmakers, though, would still have to submit safety-assessment reports to government regulators.

Lawmakers cite the need to speed along the AV development process as the reason for eliminating pre-market approval, which, as itemized in last fall’s guidelines, was a long, involved protocol. According to the most recent data, about 90 percent of all vehicle accidents are a result of human error. Experts are confident that fully autonomous cars will eliminate most, if not all, of those human-caused crashes. With auto-crash fatalities actually increasing by nearly 8 percent in 2015, and then nearly another 8 percent in the first nine months of 2016, the federal government is determined to find an answer to this safety crisis.

In the name of streamlining the testing process, the proposal bars states from imposing their own separate AV rules. States will retain the power to set rules regarding registration, licensing, liability, insurance and safety inspections, but nothing to do with the testing and operation of AVs.

Nissan has a very aggressive AV program underway. Nissan’s Josh Clifton summed up the carmaker’s reaction to this latest proposal, saying, “We appreciate the exploration of ways to provide a policy landscape that supports the deployment of automated-vehicle technology. Nissan will continue to work with other automakers, its associations and, of course, policymakers to foster innovation for these important technologies.”

There is still a long way to go before this proposal becomes law, if it becomes law; but it is a victory for carmakers, many of which have been lobbying for such legislation. Honda is quite involved in developing driverless cars in the United States through its Acura division. Honda’s Marcos Frommer couldn’t respond specifically to the legislative action, but summed up Honda’s position, “….Honda generally supports a single national standard for the design and performance of autonomous vehicles, rather than a state by state approach.”

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