Most of us view driverless cars as some sci-fi thing from the future. Actually, they’re here, and the derby to bring them to market is revolutionizing the auto industry.
So this week’s release of guidelines by federal auto safety regulators for “autonomous vehicles” has been welcome. Self-driving Google cars are all over Silicon Valley. Driverless Ubers cruise the streets of Pittsburgh. Ford has plans to put AVs on the road within five years, and advocates are beside themselves with the implications for drunken driving and the elderly.
Car designers are marketing swiveling seats and steering wheels that retract when a vehicle is on autopilot. Meanwhile, in May, a tech consultant in Florida – his car entertainment system reportedly playing a “Harry Potter” movie – was killed when his Tesla, in autonomous mode, plowed into a big rig.
In other words, the technology is beginning to outpace the culture. Yet the rules around autonomous vehicles so far have been a confusing patchwork. California, for example, passed some of the first – and most cautious – AV laws in 2012. Innovations have put draft regulations here more than a year behind.
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The intercession of the U.S. Department of Transportation “took a little longer than we would have hoped, but this is a big milestone,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a former state senator and author of California’s law, told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member on Tuesday. He’s right: The federal standards steer deftly between commerce and consumer safety, balancing commercial interests such as Tesla, Apple and Google with drivers’ and the public’s concerns.
They spell out a comprehensive safety and transparency checklist for manufacturers who have so far largely operated in secret. And they make it clear that unsafe vehicles will be swiftly recalled. They also clarify federal and state responsibilities for regulation, giving car makers the consistent playing field for which they’ve been waiting. Some big differences do remain between the dozen or so states that have passed laws. California, for instance, requires licensed drivers to remain at the wheel as backup, while Florida doesn’t. Regulators should err on the side of safety until innovation makes those disparities moot.
Rolled out with an upbeat op-ed by President Barack Obama in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the policy also reminded that government and red tape don’t have to go together, and complex national debates needn’t end unproductively. These new rules aren’t just about cars; they’re about the future, which, for the first time in a while, seemed this week to be like an open road.