Are we forgetting something about driverless cars?

Thu, 2017-02-23 13:48 -- Doug Peeples

It's not that no one is thinking about how to regulate driverless cars or who should do it. But how we regulate them doesn't seem to be as exciting as the technologies and the benefits they're expected to provide. That said, it's an important concern for cities working to prepare for and accommodate what is expected to be a dramatically different transportation future. Several developments have occurred in just the past few weeks that could shape how regulatory and related issues are resolved and how quickly driverless cars will be sharing our city streets and highways. Our story below highlights some of them.

A quick thought for city leaders and planners: now would be a good time to get in touch with your state and federal legislators if you have concerns or recommendations to share. — Doug Peeples

Last week the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee heard from car manufacturers who want some of the safety standards related to traditional cars loosened because they don't apply to driverless cars and the standards are hampering their efforts to test and refine their cars.

For instance, cars are required to have a steering wheel and foot pedals. And to get around that requirement, manufacturers need to apply for an exemption – and there is a limited number of exemptions available. Quoted in The Hill, VP for global strategy at General Motors Mike Ableson said "It is imperative that manufacturers have the ability to test these vehicles in greater numbers to gather thje safety data that will be critical to inform large-scale deployment of life-saving self-driving vehicles. One good way to accomplish this is to grand the Secretary of Transportation authority to grant specific exemptions for highly automated vehicle development."

Several legislators see that as a solution and others are working on clearing regulatory roadblocks to help the car makers.

What about laws?
While Congress is discussing legislation, there aren't any federal laws specifically regulating self-driving cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the first federal guidelines in October, but the guidelines are voluntary and intended to generate input and discussion. Think of them as a working document, not established policy. While the auto industry generally considers the guidelines a good starting point, many say it needs to be improved.

The industry also is worried about laws enacted at the state level. So far, 11 states and Washington, D.C. have laws regarding self-driving cars and their testing on the books. And some states are looking at implementing fees for driverless cars because most will be electric and they're worried that owners wouldn't be paying gas taxes the Highway Trust Fund depends on, according to Bloomberg BNA. Legislation was introduced in the Massachusetts Senate in January to collect fees from the owners of driverless cars.

Toyota Motor North America's Hillary Cain, director of technology and innovation policy, questioned the wisdom of assessing fees because it could put a damper on production and deployment of self-driving cars. Toyota, GM, Ford and others also are worried about inconsistencies in the laws governing the cars from state to state. Cain argued that uniform federal regulation would be a better approach.