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Self-Driving Cars: Government Takes First Steps to Regulate the Industry

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author photo by Russ Heaps October 2016

If you've been following the trajectory of technology development for self-driving cars with any degree of attention, you may be aware that some carmakers are forecasting that an autonomous vehicle (AV) will be on the road as early as 2020. Yes, you're correct: That's only 4 years away.

The fact is, AV technology developers will have software fully capable of controlling a vehicle without any human input in certain situations and under perfect conditions by 2020. Heck, some carmakers have that technology now.

AV technology is rolling along like a runaway freight train, with new or refined capabilities surfacing almost every day. Although, over the years, we've talked about self-driving vehicles the same way we talk about time travel or a colony on Mars, most of us only became aware of the very real prospect of a fully self-driving vehicle in the past 5 years or so -- and now, suddenly, AVs are on our doorstep. Not only did this surprise the average consumer, it also caught the federal government totally flat-footed.

Other than issuing a definition of the five ascending levels of autonomous driving through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2013, the federal government has been uncharacteristically mute on the subject of self-driving cars. In most cases, technology developers have been required to seek permission to test AVs once a self-driving technology was well into development, but such approvals have been under the purview of the states. Otherwise, AV research and development has moved forward virtually unmolested by Washington, D.C.

Although carmakers and technology developers have been making tremendous strides in autonomous technology, we glass-is-half-empty industry onlookers have been warning that creating the technology is the easy part and only represents about 95 percent of the task. It's the last 5 percent -- involving government regulations and hashing out insurance liability issues -- that will present the largest hurdles.

Late to the party, the government has finally awakened to the probability of AVs and put the massive wheels of the federal bureaucracy in motion. For good or bad, its impending oversight of the far-flung AV industry should slow things down considerably.

They're Here

In September of this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) stepped into the breach, issuing the 116-page Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (FAVP). The DOT refers to the document as a guide rather than a set of rules -- but it also states that all guidelines are effective immediately. And because the policy includes provisions for enforcement, you'd be forgiven for thinking it sounds like something a bit firmer than a set of guidelines.

Although it's neither comprehensive nor far-reaching by government standards, the FAVP is a first step toward reining in an industry that has accomplished amazing things in the past few years. Apparently not satisfied with the NHTSA allowing the industry to develop, test and certify AV technology on its own, the DOT seems determined to control the pace of future AV development, particularly in the area of certification.

Although the FAVP primarily addresses what it refers to as "highly automated vehicles" (HAVs), the policy also gives the government oversight of all future driver-assistance systems. Basically, some government agency will sign off on any and all future autonomous technology, including software upgrades for previously approved systems.

Not only does the FAVP lay out a 15-point safety assessment -- each point to be addressed and documented as a technology developer works through the process -- it also creates the groundwork for several new agencies to monitor and regulate the industry. In addition, it divvies up regulatory responsibilities between the federal government and the states.

Finally, it provides guidelines for issuing cease-and-desist orders to address imminent hazards.

What's an HAV?

By the government's definition, an HAV is any vehicle in which an automated system can conduct some parts of the driving task and monitor the driving environment to some degree. Here's the difference: Once engaged, regular cruise control can maintain a constant speed without the driver depressing the accelerator pedal until the driver manually disengages the system by depressing the brake pedal. On the other hand, adaptive cruise control can maintain a constant speed, but with the help of sensors, it also monitors traffic flow in front of the vehicle, automatically braking when traffic slows.

Theoretically, FAVP guidelines would apply to adaptive cruise control but not regular cruise control. The DOT considers any car with adaptive cruise control an HAV. Because the DOT also seems to give itself authority over the development of any future driver-assistance technology, which would include any system like regular cruise control, the definition of an HAV would appear to be a moot point.

Scope

Virtually any entity involved in developing self-driving technology falls under the FAVP. This includes carmakers, software companies, start-ups and so forth. Whether an autonomous system is factory installed or an aftermarket add-on, it falls under the guidelines of the FAVP.

What it means to you: Expect AV innovation to slow. Toeing the line on government regulations is always much easier for a large, established entity with more resources than a less-established company or a small, new start-up. FAVP record- keeping, documenting, inspection and certification requirements will slow technology development among carmakers and other larger firms and also discourage new innovators from getting into the game.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Self-Driving Cars: Government Takes First Steps to Regulate the Industry - Autotrader