Will Government Regulations On Driverless Cars Benefit The Technology?

Megan Ray Nichols

Self-driving cars are here, but unless you’ve been living beneath a rock for the last 24 months, you knew that. The thing is, they’re not on the road. Yes, a few corporations have run tests and promotions designed to demonstrate the potential of this watershed technology, but even these have been in largely controlled environments.

The path forward now is not creating the technology, but refining and understanding how “autopilot” should be used. We do that by penning laws, and the creation of the first laws to regulate automated driving will follow in the wake of Internet regulation laws as one of the most noticeable legal actions in our lifetimes.

Why regulation is a must for automated driving

The need for regulation comes out of arguably the largest caveat in creating an entirely automated road system. That is, the safety benefits from automated driving are only realized when every car on the road is automated and cars are able to communicate their planned routes in real time. Even a single human driver on the road with interconnected cars could cancel out safety wins entirely.

Be this as it may, the thought of turning an entirely automated road system on in a single step is intimidating and challenging because of the sheer number of scenarios one must account for. This means that we will likely see a gradual transition to automated cars, and the government has divided the stages in this transition into five parts.

The fascinating third stage of transition is defined as a car that switches off between human and computer control. This has proven more of a challenge for automakers than either of the later “more advanced” stages, with programmers struggling to appropriately instruct the car on when to make the change.

Many cars on the road today are already at stage one or two, with powerful cruise control systems with features like collision avoidance. Stage four requires the ability for fully automated driving. In stage five, all capacity for human input is removed from the car.

New laws will serve as a mandate

That we would eventually come to this seems like a matter of course, but it should be noted that endorsement from the government has effectively made automated cars a part of our society. Lawmakers could have chosen to forsake the technology if the safety and efficiency benefits didn’t prove compelling enough.

Even governmental officials admit there will be scenarios we’re not prepared for. For this reason, much of the law being written now is vague. The lack of definition will allow innovators to continue to introduce new ideas, with the government stepping in where more clearly defined boundaries are needed.

Pressing forward

Despite negative PR following a fatal collision in which a man was killed driving his Tesla Model S, Elon Musk’s company is committed to continuing to develop the autopilot feature. The National Highway Transport Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not yet come to a ruling on whether Tesla’s autopilot feature was to blame in the tragic wreck.

It’s not just pioneers like Tesla making strides these days, though. Major American brands Ford and GM have climbed aboard, with Ford committing to deliver an autonomous ridesharing service by 2021 and GM using automated prototypes as transport vehicles on company grounds.

What exactly will the new laws define? It’s likely that part of the regulation introduced will inform the way that cars communicate between one another. For a fully autonomous roadway of the sort that we believe could save over 30,000 lives a year, each car on the road must be in communication with all of its counterparts. Laws could help define a standard for this communication.

Additionally, the amount of data coming from the cars is sure to be a point of interest for the private sector. Whether car-to-car info will become the target of marketing efforts and Big Data mining campaigns still remains to be seen, but it certainly doesn’t sound far-flung.

To think that not so long ago it was questionable that a car might even have cruise control is shocking, but this is the world we live in. Hold on to those classics folks! You know, the ones you can drive by yourself.

Learn more about how Ford and other companies are using tech innovations today; check out the research infographic How Ford, Airbus, and GE Use 3D Printing for Competitive Advantage.

About Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and the editor of "Schooled By Science." She enjoys researching the latest advances in technology and writes regularly for Datafloq, Colocation American, and Vision Times. You can follow Megan on Twitter.