Almost ready to roll: Self-driving cars face patchwork of regulatory roadblocks

Perhaps you’ve seen the YouTube or TikTok videos: An all-electric Jaguar I-PACE sport utility vehicle picks up a passenger who hops into the back seat and proceeds to record the trip — amazed there’s no driver in the front seat.

It’s a remarkable demonstration of the current state of driverless technology that fails to represent the current state of regulatory oversight needed to make self-driving cars a common experience. Only a patchwork of rules in states that are testing autonomous vehicles currently exists.

“We may well now have the technology in place to develop self-driving cars, but the [federal] government isn’t ready for them yet and will probably never be,” said Walter E. Block, an economics professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

Waymo, whose parent company Alphabet also owns Google, has operated a driverless ride-hailing service in San Francisco for a small number of residents, known as “trusted testers,” since August — an expansion of its service for employees in that city and in Phoenix, Arizona, that included a human in the driver’s seat.

In Arizona, driverless tractor-trailers from startup company TuSimple have completed a successful 80-mile test run between a Tucson railroad and Phoenix distribution center.

And elsewhere in San Francisco, Waymo and GM Cruise are offering an autonomous taxi service under a permit that lets them collect fares with a safety driver behind the wheel.


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Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) statement in the FAQ section of its website stands: “There is no vehicle currently available for sale that is fully automated or ‘self-driving.’ Every vehicle currently for sale in the United States requires the full attention of the driver at all times for safe operation.”

Industry analysts say widespread adoption of automated driving systems has lagged partly because of safety concerns.

A self-driving Uber killed a 49-year-old woman in 2018 as she crossed a street in Tempe, Arizona. The car’s safety driver, charged with involuntary manslaughter, was watching a television program.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Uber self-driving cars had 37 accidents months before the incident — and automated vehicle accidents have persisted despite technological advances.

Joe Young, director of media relations for the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), said it’s wise for regulators to go slowly because of the financial liability involved.

“The self-driving car of the future has been touted as the answer to highway safety because these vehicles presumably won’t make the same mistakes that humans do, but IIHS researchers have raised questions about that claim,” Mr. Young said in an email.

The nonprofit IIHS recently published safety recommendations and a safeguards ratings program to favor automated vehicle designs that Mr. Young says “keep the drivers actively involved in case they need to take over.”

“If driver preference and safety are at odds, safety will need to win out to ensure the biggest safety benefit. If it doesn’t, these vehicles may make the same intentional decisions, like speeding, that often result in crashes,” he said .

Millions of Americans already drive partially automated cars that engineers from General Motors, Audi, Google, Ford and Tesla have equipped with cameras to stay centered in their lanes and avoid collisions during cruise control.

But even these commercial vehicles — including all models of Elon Musk’s Tesla, which federal regulators are investigating for overlooking safety concerns — have had problems.

Tesla, which did not respond to a request for comment, has issued 15 recalls of its Model X, S and Y electric cars since January 2021. Its recalls involve violations of federal motor safety standards and software problems — including a “full self-driving” ” software that allowed vehicles to roll through stop signs without halting.

Tara Andringa, executive director of the nonprofit Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, said these problems are why no American driver can buy a fully self-driving car in 2022.

“Any vehicles available for purchase today, even those with sophisticated advanced driver assistance technology, require an attentive human driver behind the wheel at all times,” Ms. Andringa said.

Even among states with pilot programs for self-driving cars on public roads, the laws vary.

“Some states require a safety driver in those vehicles, and some states have begun issuing permits for pilots and deployments without a driver in defined areas,” Ms. Andringa said.

Some automakers, including Audi and Hyundai, have already equipped all of their vehicle models with partially automated driving systems as part of a buildup to selling fully self-driving cars.

“As soon as 2025, we expect to introduce a production version of the Audi grandsphere concept car, though whether the infrastructure, legal framework, etc., will be ready for Level 4 automation at that time will remain to be seen,” said Mark Dahncke, director of product and innovation communications for Audi of America.

Miles Johnson, a spokesman for Hyundai Motor America, said the company’s Motional joint venture with Aptiv will upgrade all production models to Level 3 automation starting this year — and Level 4 has already been tested in South Korea.

“Hyundai’s autonomous driving vehicles not only will change personal transportation but also our entire lifestyles,” Mr. Johnson said.

To improve recognition accuracy, Hyundai is adding cameras and a next-generation integrated controller to its cars as it builds toward a customizable “Purpose-Built Vehicle” with self-driving technology.

Government regulators are moving more slowly.

At the federal level, NHTSA regulates vehicle safety and equipment. On Sept. 26, it will start enforcing a new occupant protection rule for automated driving systems.

The rule requires “the same high levels of occupant protection” as traditional vehicles and does not allow for automated vehicles without a steering wheel, driver’s seat or driver controls.

In an email, the NHTSA said self-driving cars need more research and testing “before a safety standard can be developed.”

“Certain advanced driving assistance features can promote safety by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes that occur, but as with all technologies and equipment on motor vehicles, drivers must use them correctly,” the NHTSA told The Times.

Meanwhile, state legislatures and governors regulate what vehicles can drive on US roads — and they have chosen different approaches to self-driving testing and deployment.

The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains an online database of automated vehicle bills introduced in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The piecemeal bills have tried to address issues like emissions standards and road-test permits.

“Autonomous vehicles seem poised to transform and disrupt many of the basic, longstanding fundamentals of the American transportation system,” the conference says.

Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, says it will “necessarily take years” for government officials to allow self-driving cars.

“If the federal government does not exercise its motor vehicle regulatory responsibilities, states may attempt to carry out those duties instead,” Mr. Scribner said.

“That risks creating a patchwork of state laws that would make it difficult for developers to enter their products and services into interstate commerce, raising their cost, limiting access, and ultimately forgoing safety benefits,” he added.

In January 2021, the Department of Transportation published an Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan that pledges to “modernize the regulatory environment” and “prepare the transportation system” for self-driving cars.

Financial consultant Michael Warder, principal at the Warder Consultancy in California, said courts will still need to clarify liability issues as states become “laboratories of democracy” with conflicting laws.

“The last thing I want to see is Pete Buttigieg and the Department of Transportation issuing any proclamations or regulations for self-driving cars,” Mr. Warder said. “Traffic law is primarily a state issue.”



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