Millions of self-driving cars will eventually be on our roads, so the government is smart to start regulating the technology now to ensure it is safe.
Driverless vehicles, by some estimates, could be in dealership showrooms in three years, and the federal government is right to jump in early with common-sense plans to regulate cars that will be an integral part of this country’s transportation system.
In fact, that regulation can’t come too soon: A fatal accident involving a Tesla operating in auto-pilot mode has garnered much news coverage, and there have been reports of numerous fender-benders involving self-driving cars.
The Department of Transportation recently issued guidelines – not quite official regulations — that showed the Obama administration’s support for a driverless future and kicked off the regulatory process that will be necessary for the technology to succeed.
The guidelines include a 15-point safety standard for designing and developing autonomous vehicles, a call for state governments to come up with uniform policies for self-driving cars, and clarification on how current regulations can be applied to such cars.
The guidelines build on work started in 2013, when the Obama administration dealt with driverless car safety for the first time by issuing some definitions for the technology and pledging more safety research.
In short, the guidelines prevent companies from doing just anything they want without any oversight but are vague enough to protect automakers and tech firms from overregulation.
“We left some areas intentionally vague because we wanted to outline the areas that need to be addressed and leave the rest to innovators,” Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told The New York Times.
This is exactly the right attitude. Innovation matters most.
After all, it’s innovative thinking that sparked this technology, which proponents say will save lives and lower prices for consumers.
Consider this: The widespread use of self-driving vehicles could eliminate 90 percent of all auto accidents in the U.S., prevent up to $190 billion in damages and health costs annually, and save thousands of lives, according to a report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
Throughout most of our history, the technology has come first, with the law following.
With driverless cars, we have a chance to reserve that pattern to our benefit.
Remember that cars zoomed across the land before drivers were licensed, and as a result, too many people died. Cellphones were everywhere long before states had the sense to outlaw texting while driving.
And although it’s impossible to predict how new technological advances will change the world, being ready for them is smart.
Car companies are certainly getting ready, quickly increasing their investments in the technology in a rush to bring the cars to market.
For example, Google recently announced plans to put its autonomous driving tech into 100 Fiat Chrysler minivans, and General Motors acquired software firm Cruise Automation to speed its self-driving applications.
Tesla plans to have a fully driverless car ready by 2018, and many other companies have plans to roll out self-driving cars by 2020.
Given the glacial pace of most federal regulation, getting safety guidelines in place now, as self-driving cars are just beginning to hit the road, makes good sense.
Whitt Flora is an independent journalist who covered the White House for The Columbus Dispatch and was chief congressional editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.