To Maximize Autonomous Vehicle Technology, Minimize Regulations

Commentary

To Maximize Autonomous Vehicle Technology, Minimize Regulations

Automated vehicle technology, once only a pipe dream, has made large strides in recent years. It promises to deliver a productive, more efficient, and less dangerous commute. However, the fate of autonomous vehicle technology is anything but certain. Washington’s halls of power along with statehouses across the U.S. may quickly skirt the promise of the autonomous automobile through preemptive regulatory practices. While autonomous technology is in its infant stage, bureaucrats are trying to regulate the technology before it even leaves the starting line.

Autonomous vehicle technology became an option following the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) “Grand Challenges” or autonomous vehicle races. Various research universities competed in tasks ranging from long distance races to urban street navigation. Urban navigation, long distance endurance, and vehicular law observance were all skills learned from the Grand Challenges. Companies such as Audi, BMW, Ford, Google, Tesla and others are striving to create the autonomous tech for tomorrow before anticipated regulatory actions curb progress.

Autonomous technology is developing rapidly and in many ways following the same development curve as technology in other fields. The price of solar panels and batteries dropped from $76.67/Watt in 1977 to $0.74/Watt in 2013 resulting in less expensive electric vehicles. Since product effectiveness generally improves as products are developed and refined lawmakers should wait until the dust settles before making sweeping regulatory decisions on technologies of which they have limited knowledge.

Currently, only nine states including California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia as well as Washington D.C. have laws outlining the operation of autonomous vehicles, making the legality of autonomous vehicle operation muddled in the other 41 states. Specific AV laws that were enacted in some instances do more harm than good, largely as a result of following strict federal regulatory guidelines.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has outlined key technological regulations in its “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.” The NHTSA guidelines take a prominent front seat in policy creation attempting to regulate automobile hardware and also automobile operation through the hardware. For example, NHTSA proposes regulations concerning autonomous equipment believing, “…the safety of such equipment will increasingly encompass tasks similar to “licensing” of the non-human “driver” (e.g., hardware and software performing part or all of the driving task).”

NHTSA’s policy provides alarmingly specific instruction in its 15- point guidelines. Currently, the guidelines for autonomous vehicle production and testing outlined in the policy are optional, but that may change in the future. Voluntary actions outlined in NHTSA’s guidelines, such as the “Safety Assessment Letter,” which “may be refined and made mandatory through a future rulemaking,”

Aside from the elements of the policy, states have started adopting parts of NHTSA’s guidelines into formal law. California’s new regulations call for compliance with NHTSA’s voluntary policy standards in order to gain permit approval to test AV’s on California public roads. The decrease in serious accidents and fatalities also makes speeding up the pace of AV production and limited regulation, a priority. Mark Scriber of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in a recent blog post, praises the efficiencies of the autonomous vehicles going so far as to warn California Bureaucrats that they will have “blood on their hands” until the State of California “cease[s] attempting to involve their state in matters of federal responsibility.

Former President Barrack Obama praised NHTSA’s autonomous vehicle policy holding it equally important to regulations which “… keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe.”In reality, the promises of autonomous technology, which hinge upon development and release to the market, are too great to risk in the face of precautionary policy. A future world of automated vehicles is positioned to decrease insurance prices, lower collision rates, and foster more efficient uses of fuel.

The culture of innovation in American history has been dominant. However, the innovative spirit experienced in the DARPA challenges and in the many private sector advancements is likely to be diminished under the ill-informed policies of state governments and NHTSA. It is not up to our federal and state governments to determine the future of the autonomous automobile before the technology has been given proper time to prove itself. The research and development process does not happen overnight. Policy makers must remember, not only is the technology at risk, but the lives to be saved, fuel to be conserved, and commute time to be used are at risk as well.

Baruch Feigenbaum is assistant director of transportation Policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.