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Senators Take On Daunting Effort to Allow Self-Driving Cars on Public Roads

There is still one too many regulatory hurdles preventing self-driving cars from being permitted on public roads, despite the efforts of a bipartisan Senate duo planning legislation to advance autonomous vehicle technology.

“The biggest hurdle is how to implement these autonomous vehicles when there are human-operated vehicles on the road,” Melanie Capuano, attorney and counselor at Law Miller Canfield, told Mobility Buzz. “It’s difficult to coordinate the infrastructure the autonomous vehicles are operating through with human error. That’s one of the biggest hurdles to putting these vehicles on the road in a commercial manner.”

Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan) announced yesterday that they are exploring ways to speed up the deployment of self-driving cars. But doing so will be anything but an easy task.

Congress has held multiple hearings on the emerging technology, yet there is still no significant federal law governing the operation of self-driving vehicles at present.

The senators argue that autonomous driving technology will transform commuting and prevent the loss of more than 35,000 highway deaths annually. This forecast is at least debatable.

“Practically speaking, there are a couple options to fix this issue,” Capuano said. “In an ideal world, if every vehicle is autonomous, things would run smoothly. But it’s not feasible at this point for the government to say, ‘You can’t drive your car,’ and force you to upgrade to an autonomous vehicle. People are driving cars from the 1990s still, so I don’t think it would work.”

One possible solution is for automakers to “upfit” manually-operated vehicles, so that their cars could communicate with self-driving vehicles, Capuano added. But it’s not clear yet how they will overcome this hurdle or implement this technology.

Additionally, cars are required to have a steering wheel and floor pedals, under current standards. Autonomous vehicle manufacturers will need to apply for an exemption from those standards, but federal officials can only grant 2,500 per year, according to current regulations. This could pose more problems as more companies seek to develop the technology.

Raising the cap could be one legislative solution, and Senators Thune and Peters hinted that their initiative will explore how current standards may impede self-driving vehicle development, which could presumably include bumping up the cap.

Thune and Peters also said in their statement that they are “particularly interested” in how they could improve regulatory flexibility for autonomous cars without changing current regulations that impact traditional automobiles. “Our effort will also include a discussion on the existing patchwork of laws and regulations and the traditional roles of federal and state regulators,” the lawmakers said.

At least they got one thing right: there’s certainly a “patchwork of laws and regulations” at present.

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