Articles, Level 5 Autonomous Driving, Smart Mobility

Why Now is the Time for Autonomous Vehicle Regulation

Driverless cars are inching closer to deployment, but regulations still seem to be miles away. Is it time for governments to figure this out? Are the futuristic, computer-driven automobiles of our dreams destined to be held back by a lack of legislation?

“We need a federal law,” said Kelly Bartlett, connected and automated vehicle specialist at the Michigan Department of Transportation. “The reason why that’s important is because the federal government has the oversight over equipment standards, while states regulate drivers’ licensure, liability and traffic laws. Federal AV legislation is important to start this long rulemaking timeline to actually get the lay of the land.”

Without clear legislation outlining the rules, OEMs have no direction regarding how autonomous vehicles should be engineered. They can experiment, test and demonstrate to the press or public – but that in no way means those same cars will ever be street legal. In fact, without a federal law, it might be impossible for any AV to attain that status.

“At the state level, I think our law is very progressive,” said Bartlett. “But there are certain things we need to continue to look at, principally the impact on private ownership when that starts. Right now nobody owns a private autonomous vehicle, they’re not for sale. We need to review our laws to make sure that we’re in good stead in terms of liability. For example, if you have a car and sell it to me, what happens to the duty to maintain?”

While many laws are left untouched for many years, AV legislation would have to be designed with the evolving nature of the technology in mind. And at the state level, self-driving cars might be constricted by something as simple as an unpaved road. If AVs are not capable of driving safely on all surfaces – currently it appears they are not – this could be another stumbling block for widespread proliferation.

“We have one traffic law – how does that accommodate both circumstances?” Bartlett questioned. “I think certain principles are already established, [including] that when a human driver is not in control of the vehicle, that person is not liable for the vehicle’s actions. That seems to be pretty well accepted.”

Another fairly well established principle is that owners – whether a fleet or an individual – will not be able to modify the vehicle. This rule (presumably given by the manufacturer, but it could also become law) would likely include a number of stipulations and penalties for those who disobey. Whether or not this would involve a fee or a loss of ownership has yet to be determined. But if OEMs are going to protect the driverless concept, they can’t let consumers interfere with the vehicle’s operations.

Before any of that is even a concern, however, the vehicles must continue to get better despite numerous hurdles standing in their way. “The technology that seems on the horizon now, it’s difficult for us to see how that will allow truly Level 5 throughout the entire state,” said Bartlett. “The vehicle won’t be able to answer the two important questions: where am I and what’s in front of me?”

Many are looking at connectivity and/or satellite technology to solve these problems, but it might not fix everything. “From the policy point of view, we just need to reckon with the fact that you’re going to have people who are able to use vehicles one way in the urban areas that won’t be available to people in another area,” Bartlett added.

About the author:

Louis Bedigian is an experienced journalist and contributor to various automotive trade publications. He is a dynamic writer, editor and communications specialist with expertise in the areas of journalism, promotional copy, PR, research and social networking.