In a pleasantly surprising move, the Federal Government seems for once determined to move at something a bit quicker than melting glaciers. Indeed, as a follow-up to President Obama’s recent pledge to to spend over $3.9 billion during the next ten years, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has just given the Department of Transportation a deadline by when they must submit a draft of comprehensive rules governing autonomous vehicle testing and regulation: just six months.
At a high level, the most practical impact to the burgeoning autonomous vehicle industry will be something unusual in the automotive world: 50-state uniformity. Currently, the Federal government via the Department of Transportation has mandated how cars are made and whether they must possess certain design elements — for instance, seat belts — while the states have been free to decide how the cars are driven by implementation of their own traffic laws. (Yes, for a while, the 55 mph national speed limit was mandated by the Federal government, but only in the sense that it was a condition precedent to receiving Federal funding assistance for roads. Ditto the 21-year-old drinking laws.)
The result for autonomous vehicles, then, is predictably unpredictable, with results so haphazardly scattered across the legislative spectrum, that the extreme limits border on comical: where Nevada, for instance, requires a special license and registration for autonomous vehicles to drive on public roads (and even then, only for vehicles purchased in Nevada), Florida basically doesn’t have any opinion one way or the other: “[Florida] does not prohibit or specifically regulate the testing or operation of autonomous technology.”
This is bad. Lack of uniform regulation causes a mess not only for consumers, but also for manufacturers. Just consider Google’s outcry at California’s unexpectedly conservative rules proposed in a draft regulations on autonomous vehicles that may require drivers in otherwise “driverless” vehicles.
Put another way, no automaker wants to design autonomous cars subject to 50 different states’ driving laws. That would be absurd, not to mention utterly impracticable. No consumer would want to deal with such cars, either: or, a car legal in, say, California, could be illegal in Arizona. It just wouldn’t make any sense.
Reinforcing the DOT’s philosophical about-face to being more proactive rather than reactive, is its recent change to the NHTSA’s crash result star ratings that go into effect for model year 2019 when cars will need to have active safety systems in order to win that coveted five-star score. This will effectively encourage car makers to fast track such safety systems and is a smart and bold step forward towards realizing a safer automobile, especially since passive safety like the physical design of a vehicle’s crash structure has essentially reached a point of diminishing returns (at least at reasonable cost and practical design) — there’s only so much strength and energy dissipation you can build into a mostly steel-and-aluminum tub without full race cages, harnesses, and helmets and HANS devices for all occupants.
So far, reaction has been nothing short of positive, with a Google spokesperson welcoming “the Secretary’s commitment to removing barriers that may prevent them from sharing the roads when they’re ready”, and Lyft, a ride-sharing service, recently basking in the glow of a promising partnership with GM to work on autonomous vehicles, “look[ing] forward to continuing to work with federal, state, and local governments to shape the future of mobility.”
Especially considering the recent alarm bell-sounding report of “thousands” of autonomous vehicle disengagements, the rapidly escalating deployment in 2016 of more semi-autonomous vehicles; and the exciting future lying in store just four years from now in 2020, this mandate from the DOT couldn’t have come at a better time, and is remarkably encouraging indeed.