Feds Test Drive New Rule for Self-Driving Cars

March 1, 2016

In recent years, car manufacturers have made news with their advancements in driverless cars. In October 2015, Tesla transformed the Model S into a nearly driverless car with a new software update. Audi and Toyota have joined the bandwagon, announcing plans to launch driverless cars in the next five years and Ford is currently testing a self-driving Fusion hybrid. Driverless cars suggest a future with less traffic and fewer accidents. With one report suggesting self-driving vehicles cold eliminate 90% of all auto accidents. However, driverless car technology has a long way to go. Google “lost” one of its driverless cars in California and a driverless car was pulled over in Texas for driving too slow. While refining driverless car technology remains necessary before drivers can move out of the driver seat, new policies also need to be put in place before self-driving cars can take the road.
In February the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offered insight to the form these policies could take. Google had asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for clarification on certain rules for self-driving cars, specifically cars that do not contain a steering wheel or pedals. In response, the NHTSA explained,

“If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the ‘driver’ as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving.”

In effect, the government would consider the computer or software as the driver of the vehicle.
NHTSA further explained that, “NHTSA will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants.”
This explanation marks a huge step in the advancement of driverless cars in the United States. However, there are many more rules that need clarification before fully driverless cars take the road. And as law professor Bryant Walker Smith, who studies self-driving vehicles, explains, “Where technology meets law, the devil is in the details.” Currently, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) is over one thousand pages, laying out the specific details for manufacturers of cars, buses, and motorcycles to follow. The amount of detail in FMVSS raises two issues for the future of driverless cars. First, the rulemaking process for changing FMVSS is long and onerous. Second, the government lacks a system to test the functionality of driverless cars. Furthermore, state laws will come into play in determining traffic laws for driverless cars. For example, California issued draft regulations for partial self-driving cars in December 2015, ruling out completely driverless cars. California’s pending regulations would hold human operators responsible for all traffic tickets and accidents. These regulations are in contradiction with NHTSA’s explanation last month, showing the difference “between what states allow and what the federal government says.” While these issues represent major speed bumps for the future of self-driving cars, NHSTA’s willingness to count computers as humans is a big step forward.