The federal government is operating in high gear trying to get out ahead of the self-driving car movement, which is probably good considering the existing laws and regulations are totally unprepared for what the future may bring, according to a draft report commissioned by the US Department of Transportation.
The report, released today, analyzed the current federal rulebook to determine how automated vehicles — both conventional-looking ones with steering wheels and foot pedals, and more conceptual ones with none of those traditional elements — would fit in the current regulatory framework. It concluded that normal-looking driverless cars should fit fine, while the more unconventionally designed versions could throw the government for a loop.
"push the boundaries of conventional design"
"Automated vehicles that begin to push the boundaries of conventional design (e.g., alternative cabin layouts, omission of manual controls) would be constrained by the current [federal motor vehicle safety standards] or may conflict with policy objectives of the FMVSS," the report's authors say. "Many standards, as currently written, are based on assumptions of conventional vehicle designs and thus pose challenges for certain design concepts, particularly for ‘driverless' concepts where human occupants have no way of driving the vehicle." Normal driverless cars with steering wheels and pedals should be fine, the report's authors say, aside from some minor issues with theft protection and rollaway prevention.
We've already seen some of these challenges crop up in California, where the state's Department of Motor Vehicles issued draft rules to require all driverless cars to have a licensed driver behind the wheel at all times. That would make Google's prototype self-driving car illegal, since it has no steering wheel or pedals. Other driverless cars are normal vehicles with light-and-radar sensors attached to the roof. And some manufacturers have unveiled concept cars with swivel seats so riders could face each other, like the Mercedes-Benz F 015.
Swivel seats could conflict with US policy
With these limitations in mind, the feds are charging ahead with their plan to bring the government's rulebook up to speed. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced at the Detroit Auto Show in January that his agency would release operational guidance for manufacturers, as well as a model policy for the states to better regulate automated and connected cars. Both of those proposals are slated to be released later this year. He also promised to spend $4 billion over 10 years to help incentivize and test automated vehicle technology.
Next week, the US Senate is planning to hold a hearing on driverless cars, featuring testimony from Google, General Motors, Lyft, Delphi Automotive, and Duke University. And on April 8th, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will hold a public hearing on autonomous cars in Washington, DC. A second hearing will be held in California at a later date.