The Complexities of Regulating Autonomous Vehicles In the United States
Wed, April 21, 2021

The Complexities of Regulating Autonomous Vehicles In the United States

A few hundred autonomous vehicles are being tested in America today, using technological innovations to travel on their own along highways, stop at red lights, and avoid pedestrians and cyclists—sometimes, they don’t / Photo by: vaalaa via Shutterstock

 

A few hundred autonomous vehicles are being tested in America today, using technological innovations to travel on their own along highways, stop at red lights, and avoid pedestrians and cyclists—sometimes, they don’t, wrote Caitlin O’Hara of American monthly magazine Wired. To put this into perspective, more than 60 firms are registered to test in California alone, although only 28 of them tested on state roads the past year. 

In many states, firms that are experimenting with self-driving cars don’t need to specify anything as the federal government doesn’t keep track of the testing. The technology is still in its infancy but industry reps and experts said it’s too early to create a self-driver’s license exam for autonomous cars. While autonomous vehicles present new opportunities, they also “pose new risks,” said Daniel Araya of business news magazine Forbes. Before we can see more self-driving cars on our roads, they will have to be regulated first, which will be a complicated process. 

 

AVs are Becoming Mainstream 

Frankly, autonomous vehicles are not as radical as they might seem. AV technology is built upon a plethora of existing innovations that affect related industries such as factory production (machine automation), telecommunications (information technology), terrestrial navigation (GPS), and aircraft control systems. Apparently, there is a counterintuitive analogy regarding autonomous cars. There was the elevator before the arrival of self-driving cars. Elevators revolutionized the way we physically move through buildings, which slowly eliminated the need for human operators. 

AV tech will transform mobility, just like elevators. We expect that AV tech will ease up our overloaded transportation system as self-driving cars help reduce more than 250 million hours of commuting time every year. These vehicles will smoothen traffic flow and minimize congestion by automating transportation across ever-evolving telecommunications networks.

But even if self-driving cars will evolve, it does not mean that customers are eager to purchase them right away. 

Ownership Is a Challenge in AV Regulation 

Today, there are 3.7 billion individuals living in cities, and that number will double by 2050. Let’s assume that on-demand transportation firms like Lyft and Uber are the future. If that happens, personal car ownership could be replaced by other alternatives to ownership. Hence, the issue of ownership is the key challenge to AV regulation. Currently, self-driving cars will be purchased and owned by customers. However, AV tech will more likely accelerate “the shift to transportation-as-a-service.” In the United States, the number of 16- to 40-year-olds getting a driver’s license has been declining since 1983. Further, the number of individuals obtaining their driver’s license has been decreasing in every age group. 

On the other hand, nearly 1.3 million people die in traffic fatalities annually. Apparently, 94% of these deaths result from human error. Hence, self-driving vehicles will be the beacon of hope to slash down this number by automating transportation. Not only could these vehicles save lives, but they could also slash costs. Globally, traffic accidents cost $500 billion each year. AV technology could mean we can reduce insurance claims or even eliminate personal injury insurance.

Today, there are 3.7 billion individuals living in cities, and that number will double by 2050 / Photo by: Olivier Le Moal via Shutterstock

 

States Have Their Own Approach to AV Regulation

In America, regulating self-driving cars fall on the states. The federal government deals with anything related to vehicle design. For example, it can point out that something is wrong with the car’s airbag. At this point, all the AVs you see on public roads are nothing but normal cars with software installed in them. Hence, they don’t need any exception from the federal government to operate. Meanwhile, states deal with anything related to knowing how to operate vehicles. For example, they can determine if you’re good enough to have a driver’s license. At the testing phase, state legislatures and agencies are responsible for “determining who gets to do what.” 

Today, state rules on self-driving cars vary. In Arizona, the state became a test lab for self-driving vehicles as its governor in 2015 introduced an executive order saying that state agencies are allowed to support the testing of autonomous vehicles. Companies testing cars in Arizona have a backup driver behind the steering wheel, notifying the state that they are in the car. Waymo, which has started to carry paying passengers in self-driving cars, must fill out forms to nix the backup driver. 

Pennsylvania requires testers to complete a more detailed application. Their application must be approved by the state, mandating AV companies to inform the state where they are testing and to provide crash reports. Meanwhile, California gathers and publishes information about the vehicle’s performance during testing, much to the chagrin of the companies. 

Even if these states have their own approach in AV technology, we can’t help but tackle the issue of risk. People fear that self-driving vehicles are not safe. Companies can test cars within a closed environment. But eventually, they will need to deploy fleets of autonomous cars on public roads at scale to gauge their level of safety. This puts the public in potentially dangerous research environments. Nevertheless, it’s up to the US Congress to create a federal framework, which includes funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

Regulating self-driving cars remains a challenge in the US. It’s a federal government, so each state has its own approach in testing AV technology. Autonomous vehicles will slowly become part of the norm. Hence, regulatory frameworks are essential to bringing AV tech to the mainstream.