Self-driving and assisted driving car technology has been one of the most touted developments in both the software and automotive worlds, with companies like Google leading the initiative to make autonomous vehicles safe for the road. So far, however, the legal and regulatory frameworks governing self-driving cars have been vague at best. In a move that helps clarify some of these complexities, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released policy statement on self-driving cars, giving states a nonbinding recommendation that self-driving cars not yet be allowed except for testing.
Self-driving cars are currently explicitly legal in California, Nevada and Florida. In other states, they occupy a legal gray area since they are not banned but not permitted either. Cars have been subject to strict regulation for years, and parsing the way self-driving technologies relate to existing regulatory rules poses potential legal complications. According to companies such as Google, regulations and uncertainty offer an impediment to innovation. The NHSTA policy announcement suggests a framework within which the technology can be tested.
“We want to have some experimentation in the states to see what works, but it’s nice to have federal experts helping out, as long as they don’t take it too far,” Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who co-founded Stanford’s Legal Aspects of Autonomous Driving center, told the New York Times.
Charting the progress of driverless cars
Self-driving car technology has been evolving rapidly in recent years, with many assisted driving tools such as parallel parking aids, collision detection systems and cruise control already present in today’s vehicles. Fully driverless cars are promoted by advocates, analysts and the transportation department itself as a way to potentially eliminate human error while driving and provide mobility to those who cannot drive such as the elderly or the disabled. Such technology could free up time for commuters and make the roads less congested. Many companies are researching autonomous driving, and Google’s test cars have safely logged more than half a million miles of driving, according to the company.
However, such technology is not developed enough yet to create safety standards, according to the NHSTA, which also announced it was beginning a four-year research initiative to study the safety of automation features. And despite the potential benefits, many Americans remain cautious about the prospect of driverless cars, the New York Times reported. In one poll by the Auto Alliance, a Washington trade group representing the 12 largest automakers, 81 percent of people said they were worried about hackers taking control of an automated vehicle. The lack of human judgement is also frightening to most people, Calo said.
“The first time that a driverless vehicle swerves to avoid a shopping cart and hits a stroller, someone’s going to write, ‘robot car kills baby to save groceries,’” he said. “It’s those kinds of reasons you want to make sure this stuff is fully tested.”
As road tests continue – now with government endorsement – ensuring flawless driverless car technology will be essential for navigating future safety regulations and building public trust. As automakers look to eliminate errors in their code, tools such as static analysis software can be helpful for catching glitches and guaranteeing safe operation.
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