Are Driverless Cars Safe?
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Are Driverless Cars Safe?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018By Nina Shapirshteyn

As autonomous car technology improves at a breakneck speed, it is unclear that legislation will be able to keep up. This has consumer advocates and some lawmakers expressing concern that consumers are not adequately protected from the dangers associated with driverless technology. Safety experts want to see the implementation of stringent regulations while the autonomous car industry supports weaker rules that preclude state-specific safety standards.

Current bipartisan legislation seeks to enhance the role of autonomous automakers, partly by preventing states from enacting their own rules for driverless cars. Supporters of the statute advocate the creation of federal guidelines to push development in the industry forward. Critics of the bill maintain that safety standards must be enhanced, not simplified, in light of the challenges facing the industry. Such challenges have been exposed in nationwide tests of driverless cars, which resulted in the first pedestrian death by a self-driving Uber car.

Under the bill in the House of Representatives, known as the SELF DRIVE Act, the Secretary of Transportation would be authorized to offer exemptions from safety standards to automakers. This scheme would permit 25,000 exemptions in the first year and up to 100,000 by the third year. In order to obtain an exemption, an automaker must show that its autonomous cars are safe or safer than traditional cars. The state would be authorized to oversee licensing and registration and monitor safety inspections and crashes. A similar bill, known as the AV START Act, was introduced in the Senate. It too prevents the implementation of state laws governing autonomous vehicles. Lawmakers are attempting to get the bill through Senate by the end of summer.

Opponents of the legislation worry that a federal regulatory scheme may be a long time away. They argue that the Department of Transportation is not adequately prepared to develop and enforce standards that keep pace with technological innovation in the driverless car industry. In the meantime, there are no laws to protect consumers. Critics of the bill caution that that the Senate bill prohibits state and local regulations even if federal measures are never passed and also fails to set forth safety standards for partially automated vehicles, which have been at the center of several recent collisions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is collaborating with Congress to develop federal guidelines but there is currently no deadline for presenting a plan to the public.

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