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Self-driving car regulations: roadblock or fast-lane for innovation?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a new study into how regulations could impact the growing market for self-driving cars. While some will be unaffected, others could face challenges.

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    Google's new self-driving car during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. (May 13, 2015). Federal officials have said that regulation need to be updated before fully autonomous cars can be on roads.
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Self-driving cars may face a few legal roadblocks before they can deploy, says a US auto rating agency.

On Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a study that highlighted problems with current and future regulations that could hinder the deployment of some fully autonomous self-driving cars. Automakers in the US face a range of regulations, most of which were crafted with a human driver in mind.

The race for safe and functional self-driving technology has gripped established Detroit-based car giants and Silicon Valley tech companies alike, but not all proposed self-driving cars will have regulatory challenges. Some self-driving cars will face almost no resistance.

What is the difference between an autonomous car on the road and one in the courtroom? It could be in the steering wheel. 

“[The] review revealed that there are few barriers for automated vehicles to comply with [Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards], as long as the vehicle does not significantly diverge from a conventional vehicle design,” the NHTS study states.

The emphasis will be on human driver redundancies available in the cars. For example, current regulations could require self-driving cars to be equipped with steering wheels, brake pedals, and other items necessary for a human to take control. If those are available, there is potential for self-driving cars to be street legal.

In the past, the NHTSA has gone further and said AI cars could be considered legal drivers. A letter to Google last month, the agency says self-driving cars may not always need human drivers and that the term "driver" may need to be redefined. "We agree with Google its SDV will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years," the letter states. 

But for now, the study warned current regulations would be an obstacle for self-driving cars that seek to remove the human element from driving completely.

“Automated vehicles that begin to push the boundaries of conventional design (e.g., alternative cabin layouts, omission of manual controls) would be constrained by the current FMVSS or may conflict with policy objectives of the FMVSS,” the NHTSA study concludes.

This could impact some projects, like Google's two-seat self-driving car prototype, which lacks pedals and a steering wheel. 

Similar prototypes could also be vulnerable to future regulations. California has proposed a draft of regulations that would require self-driving cars to still contain a steering wheel and a licensed driver while on the road, according to the Guardian.

The first at-fault accident for a Google self-driving car is also still being investigated, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told Reuters. Findings could affect the agency's new guidelines for policymakers and companies that are set to be released in July.

The purpose of the study was to identify where regulations could stifle innovation, but also to check that there are appropriate regulations to ensure self-driving cars operate safely, according to the NHTSA. In some circumstances, the agency would be willing to offer exemptions to speed up development for autonomous cars and vehicles, according to Reuters. 

“We are witnessing a revolution in auto technology that has the potential to save thousands of lives,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in the NHTSA press release. “In order to achieve that potential, we need to establish guidelines for manufacturers that clearly outline how we expect automated vehicles to function – not only safely, but more safely – on our roads.”

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