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U.S. Paves the Way for More Self-Driving Cars

A Congressional vote will speed the introduction of autonomous vehicles, creating a regulatory framework and giving the federal government authority to exempt automakers from some safety standards.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in 2014 that 94% of car accidents are attributable to human error. In 2016, there were an estimated 40,000 U.S. highway fatalities, 2.5 million injuries, and more than 6 million car accidents. In 2015 alone, U.S. road deaths rose 7.7%, its highest annual jump since 1966.

Enter the self-driving car, which over time is projected to reduce traffic deaths by up to 90%, saving 30,000 lives a year.

Last week lawmakers in the House of Representatives approved the Self Drive Act (H.R. 3388, formally known as the “Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act”). H.R. 3388 amends title 49 of the United States Code regarding the authority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to provide safety measures for highly automated vehicles. It exempts automakers from some safety standards that aren’t relevant to autonomous vehicles and further aims to:

  • Clarify the role of NHTSA for regulating the safety of the design, construction, and performance of self-driving cars.
  • Improve NHTSA’s access to safety data for future updates and development of safety standards.
  • Establish NHTSA safety assessment certification for manufacturers. Companies would have to provide a detailed analysis showing an autonomous vehicle or self-driving feature was as safe as a traditional vehicle or feature, even if it didn’t meet existing standards (such as having a steering wheel).
  • Enhance protections for cybersecurity, privacy, and consumer education. Manufacturers would be required to develop cybersecurity plans for detecting and responding to cyberattacks on vehicles while also coming up with ways of protecting the personal data of owners.

While the Self Drive Act leaves to Congress and federal regulators the authority for setting performance standards, it continues to leave to the states authority over issues such as licensing, insurance and law enforcement—except in cases where those rules could prove to be “an unreasonable restriction” on the vehicles’ performance.

States which now have a makeshift set of rules regulating these vehicles would have to follow the new federal law. Most states require self-driving vehicles to be equipped with such things as steering wheels to control direction and pedals to control brakes and acceleration while self-driving vehicles are on public roads.

If approved by the Senate and signed by the president, the legislation would put autonomous vehicles onto public roads more quickly and curb states from restricting their use. The Self Drive Act prohibits states from enforcing, prescribing, or continuing any law or regulation “regarding the design, construction, or performance of highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems” unless such law or regulation is identical to a standard prescribed in H.R. 3388.

Under the bill manufacturers of driverless cars can obtain some exemptions from vehicle safety regulations for 25,000 vehicles in the first year after the legislation takes effect. That cap would increase to 100,000 over the following three years.

The House legislation also includes a separate provision that calls for NHTSA to develop a rule within two years requiring new vehicles to be equipped with an alarm alerting drivers to check rears seats after a vehicle stops. This is intended to help reduce the number of deaths to children or animals inadvertently left in vehicles.

The legislation also would require the U.S. Transportation Department (DoT) to develop rules within a year regarding self-driving cars sharing roads with traditional vehicles, and identify other aspects of autonomous vehicles that may require performance standards to be set (for things such as sensors and software).

Not later than three years after the  date of enactment,  the bill requires the DoT to complete research to determine the most cost-effective method and terminology for informing consumers about the capabilities and limitations of each highly automated vehicle, or each vehicle that performs partial driving automation.

The NHTSA still needs to clarify safety guidelines covering self-driving technology. Elaine L. Chao, the transportation secretary, is expected to announce revised guidelines for these vehicles while in Michigan this week.

The next steps will come in the Senate, where the bill has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. If it passes the Senate, the legislation would open up many states that currently do not allow autonomous cars to be driven on their roads. If a measure passes the full Senate, the two versions would have to be reconciled before President Trump could sign it into law.

In the meantime, R&D continues with the 2.5-mile highway for developing and testing autonomous vehicles built by the nonprofit American Center for Mobility (ACM), expected to be ready for use in December. The test loop runs across and near the grounds of the former General Motors Willow Run (Mich.) Transmission plant. Willow Run was initially built by Henry Ford as an advanced aircraft manufacturing facility during World War II. It was redeveloped by General Motors in the 1950s and operated until 2010.

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