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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The U.S. has taken a hands-off approach to regulating self-driving cars, hoping to help the market thrive — but that approach could ultimately backfire, if it helps sow doubt about the technology's safety.

Driving the news: The U.S. auto safety agency is investigating 28 crashes of Tesla vehicles. And with no clear rules or accountability, these incidents risk undermining public confidence in a technology that's supposed to help the U.S. keep its global competitive edge.

The big picture: "The truth is technology has been developing maybe faster than policy in this regard," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Axios.

  • "We've got a lot of very detailed authorities for regulating where a mirror ought to go. They don't even contemplate a scenario where we're talking about sensors doing the work that mirrors or human beings used to."

Between the lines: Perceptions of self-driving technology are also moving faster than the technology itself, and simple hype may be contributing to the vehicles' growing record of high-profile crashes.

  • "One of the biggest things for us is just making sure that consumers understand what these technologies are for and what they're not for, at least not yet," Buttigieg said. "That's where language really matters."

Reality check: There are no truly self-driving cars available for purchase today, only cars with driver-assist technologies. And some critics say Tesla — which has an outsized influence in this market — is overselling its features in a way that might give consumers the wrong idea and lead to crashes.

  • "Autopilot" is a misnomer: the technology is a form of enhanced cruise control. Drivers still need to keep a hand on the wheel and pay attention at all times. But they often don't.
  • And Tesla's newly introduced "Full Self-Driving" technology vastly overstates its capabilities.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board last year slammed Tesla and the federal government for failing to prevent "foreseeable abuse" of Autopilot technology.

What they're saying: Democratic Senators Ed Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) demanded "corrective action" from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a letter last week.

  • "We fear safety concerns involving these vehicles are becoming a pattern, which is incredibly worrisome and deserves your undivided attention," they wrote in a letter to NHTSA Acting Administrator Steven Cliff.

What's next: Despite these high-profile incidents, the march toward self-driving vehicles is still moving quickly. Another pair of senators — Democrat Gary Peters and Republican John Thune — are hoping to speed the commercial use of automated vehicles, Reuters reported.

  • The pair is working to attach AV legislation to a bill to be taken up this week by the Senate Commerce Committee that would provide $100 billion for R&D to maintain U.S. competitiveness with China.
  • The change would allow NHTSA over three years to permit up to 80,000 self-driving cars per automaker, up from 2,500 today.

Go deeper

The states ending federal pandemic unemployment benefits early

Protesters demand senators support the continuation of unemployment benefits on July 16, 2020 in Miami Springs, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

At least 13 Republican-led states have announced they are terminating their involvement in federal pandemic-related unemployment programs early.

Driving the news: Many of the states' governors cited worker shortages. But some experts say it's the job climate, including pandemic-era factors, and not unemployment benefits that is determining when and how people return to work.

Elon Musk suspends Tesla purchases with bitcoin

Elon Musk. Photo: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Consumers can no longer buy Tesla vehicles with bitcoin, CEO Elon Musk announced on Twitter Wednesday.

What he's saying: Musk cited the environmental concerns associated with bitcoin — the cryptocurrency has a massive carbon footprint — as his reasoning behind Wednesday's decision.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
2 hours ago - Science

The cicadas are a preview of a buggy future

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Trillions of Brood X cicadas are now emerging throughout parts of the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern U.S.

Why it matters: Most immediately, because they can be as loud as a Metallica show when they're singing in concert.

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