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Self-driving needs full speed regulatory reform

By Celeste Arenas | March 09, 2017

Pictured: Mercedes Benz F 015 (Bart Maat/Getty Images E)

The future is getting closer and closer to the present with vehicles that drive themselves. Self-driving heralds a new era in the automotive industry, as revolutionary as Ford’s first moving assembly line. Developers project 5 years before rolling out AV en masse, while the pundits estimate this could be sooner. Outdated regulatory models, however, are pulling the brakes on the entire process. This is dangerous and costly for all stakeholders; developers, drivers and passengers and must be adapted to facilitate, instead of constrict, technology that advances society as a whole.
 
What self-driving will do for society
 
Self-driving offers unprecedented opportunities to improve transportation as we know it; saving innocent lives, fostering inclusion and pioneering unequalled logistical capabilities. Even cautionaries warning about the consequences of automation cannot gloss over the groundbreaking nature of autopilot technology for our most vulnerable on the road. Human error, the cause of 94% of fatalities during driving, would be eliminated under AV technology. 

Quite simply, autonomous vehicles can save 1.3 million people from dying every year in human-operated operated vehicles, including the lives of 37,000 Americans. This is the crux for why society needs self-driving accessibility as soon as it is available; technology can and must be used to protect human lives. 

Staggering statistical estimates have placed self-driving in the same line as modern vaccines and smoking education in the way of preventing 50 million deaths worldwide following 50 years of AV accessibility. Case by case scenarios have shown even partial autopilot features can prevent individuals from dying on the road, begging the question as to why legal obstacles remain in harnessing the potential of self-driving.
 
The technology will likewise improve lives as it saves them; enabling some of society’s most disadvantaged people, including the elderly and disabled, to access independent transportation. Commentators have observed that immobile communities stand to gain the most from AV technology, reducing traditional obstacles in everyday logistics with features like adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring and automatic braking. This has many positive outcomes, for the immobile and their guardians alike, in alleviating the burdens that man-operated vehicles cannot overcome.
 
Autonomous vehicles provide autonomy for users, benefiting individuals on the road and economies as a whole. Projected productivity gains from shorter commutes and saved time amount to $507 billion annually in the US alone, where Americans currently spend 75 billion hours driving per year. This aligns with the total amount of savings at $1.3 trillion to the US economy, leading to an 8% growth in annual GDP. Providing a myriad of possibilities, self-driving has positive implications for reducing environmental damage, cutting petrol costs, creating land supply from repurposed parking lots and eliminating traffic congestion. The faster AV gets onto our roads, the faster society will advance into a better era for transportation.
 
What regulators can do for self-driving
 
The nationwide benefits that AV innovation provide are tangential to the policy outcomes that lawmakers seek. It is therefore incumbent on our elected officials to facilitate conditions for experimentation, development and en masse deployment of self-driving technology.
 
While self-driving is encouraged at a federal level through the NHTSA, many inconsistent regulations implemented at a state, city and county level present numerous obstacles in the accessibility and usage of autonomous vehicles on American roads. 

In recent Senate testimony, Lyft noted that 60 new bills on AV were proposed in 20 states since Jan 2017 alone. What has been described as a patchwork of regulations, with contradictory definitions, guidelines and licensing requirements has been cited as the “greatest obstacle” to full development of AV technology.
 
Particularly restrictive frameworks in California for example, are detrimental for the many innovators that perform the majority of their self-driving operations within the state. Mandated requirements that a driver must be present behind the wheel at all times negate recent advancements by the NHTSA to foster AV capability, reduce the possibility of improving driving technology for the disabled.  
 
Even some of the most lenient states for self-driving, like Michigan, have failed to propose regulations that adequately foster full development of autonomous vehicles. Through exclusive protections of manufacturers over tech companies under SB 996, lawmakers distorted the playing-field to benefit some companies at the expense of innovation.
 
Automakers are increasingly calling on the federal government to establish a national framework that will ease the regulatory burden of AV technology. Toyota echoes these demands by testifying that federal regulators should tell state regulators that “it is in their interest” to permit technological innovation. They further submit that regulations are valid during en masse vehicle deployment in the market, but that lawmakers should not apply prescriptive regulations during critical development stages.
 
By implementing a national, standardized and flexible policy approach to self-driving, industry will be allowed to drive us into a whole new era for vehicle technology.