Feb 7, 2020 - Technology

Self-driving cars are getting their own rules

Nuro's R2 has no occupants, mirrors or windshield. Photo: Courtesy of Nuro

Nuro's R2 has no occupants, mirrors or windshield. Photo: Courtesy of Nuro

Regulators are starting to rewrite rules for self-driving cars to share the road with traditional vehicles.

The big picture: Automated test vehicles are allowed on public roads in some states — so long as they comply with existing safety standards written for human-driven vehicles.

  • As the technology advances, specially designed AVs without human controls are taking their place, requiring modern rules for the driverless era.

Driving the news: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this week gave Nuro, a Silicon Valley startup, permission to bypass some existing safety standards in order to deploy its automated grocery delivery vehicles with no one aboard.

Why it matters: By granting Nuro the industry's first exemption for an AV, NHTSA determined the company's little delivery vans are as safe as other small, low-speed vehicles and that deploying them is in the public interest because it will help the agency shape future AV policy.

  • NHTSA will keep a tight leash by limiting Nuro to 5,000 vehicles over two years and requiring the company to share real-time safety data.
  • The regulatory milestone could pave the way for the deployment of other dedicated AVs.
  • Cruise, General Motors' self-driving unit, is in discussions with NHTSA about an exemption for its new driverless ride-sharing vehicle, Origin.

Exemptions are a temporary fix that could provide a path for AVs to be deployed until safety regulations are enacted.

  • NHTSA has begun the rule-making process for AVs, but that often takes many years.
  • Other countries are moving faster on AV regulation, according to a report this week from global advisory firm Dentons.

Meanwhile: There's action on other fronts. After three years of stalled progress, self-driving vehicle legislation could be picking up momentum in Congress.

  • A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday will hear testimony about sections of a draft bill that would establish a federal framework for self-driving vehicles.
  • This time, lawmakers from both parties, in the House and Senate are crafting the legislation together to give the bill a better chance of passing.
  • The bipartisan, bicameral approach is unusual, and Tuesday's hearing is a sign the legislation might be back on track, says Jamie Boone of the Consumer Technology Association.

Yes, but: The bill could run into many of the same sticking points that killed previous efforts, such as legal liability and the split between federal and state authority.

  • One muddy issue, for example: Today the federal government has authority over vehicle safety whereas states oversee traffic laws, driver's licenses and vehicle registration.
  • The big question: What happens when the driver is a robot?

Some industry groups are stepping in to try to fill the regulatory gap with measurable standards all AV companies can follow.

  • A wave of new AV safety standardization efforts are being rolled out this year by groups such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Underwriters Laboratories and SAE International.
  • The risk is conflicting standards that could lead to confusion.

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