The world as seen by a self-driving car. (credit: Jonathan Gitlin)

We’ve been hitting the tech of self-driving cars pretty heavily this week, taking a look at what companies like Audi, BMW, Ford, QNX, and Tesla are doing in the field. But it’s looking more and more likely that it’s not going to be the technology itself that determines when we’ll be able to buy a self-driving car for that morning commute. Instead, all the other stuff—regulations, laws, insurance questions, and society’s comfort level—appear ready to own the issue of timing.
At this week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that “in 2016, we are going to do everything we can to promote safe, smart and sustainable, vehicles. We are bullish on automated vehicles.” Still, working out how to regulate self-driving cars is far from settled. Each state (well, OK maybe every state but Maryland) has a pretty good idea of how to test young drivers to determine whether they’re ready to mix it with the rest of us in traffic. Figuring out how to apply that to a car itself is proving to be more of a challenge. California, for instance, is about to hold a couple of public workshops to get input into its draft regulations on the the matter, and DMVs in other states are being told by their respective legislatures to start working on the problem. Today, there’s a real fear in the industry that we could end up with a patchwork of different state laws (something Cars Technica even talked about on the radio yesterday).

Then there’s the federal government, where crafting policies, regulations, and guidances can be slow work. Take recent advances in headlight technology for example. Over in Europe, you can now buy cars that use LED lasers to supplement their high-beams. Those lights are intelligent enough to avoid blinding other cars on the road, and they represent a significant safety advantage. But the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for headlights in the US went into effect in 1968 and haven’t been updated since. And because they don’t make any allowances for anything other than a high beam and a low beam, such systems are illegal here in the US.
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