Considering that Uber is already ferrying customers in their self-driving taxis, Tesla has finally released their new improved Autopilot feature, and Google, along with other tech giants, are catching up on driverless technology, there was only one thing holding back the transport revolution - legislation. The time has come, the US Administration released the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy, thoughtfully prepared by the United States Department of Transportation.
Whether people like it or not, autonomous vehicles are coming, and conventional transport is soon to be disrupted. What's the urgency? The government acknowledges that aside from safety advantages, driverless technology has big potential in the market, infrastructure, and as another effective measure to reduce CO2 emissions.
The human factor remains the main cause of car accidents, where autonomous vehicles can have a positive change: 'The automobile industry is on the cusp of a technological transformation that holds promise to catalyze an unprecedented advance in safety on US roads and highways,' - the new policy says. 35,092 people died on US roadways in 2015 alone, where 94% of crashes were linked to a human choice or error. Despite showing outstanding safety records, though, the task to come up with the detailed guidance was far from easy. Authorities had to identify core problems, and review the risks and advantages, so high standards can be put in place.
The US Department of Transportation called for car manufacturers and technology developers to be transparent, having stressed they must demonstrate how 'virtual drivers' function, what happens if technology fails, and how it's being tested. Tesla, General Motors and Google's Alphabet, currently the biggest players in the field, must ensure vehicle performance assessments are fully public, and both regulators and other automotive companies can evaluate them. As new regulations were created on the federal level, states wouldn't be able to come up with their own local rules - the move has been warmly welcomed by the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, with Uber and Lyft among the members. It also means all states are equally regulated, and legislations are easier to amend if needed.
As for technical standards, despite having a positive tone throughout the policy, authorities didn't go easy on safety assessment, and here are 15 benchmarks car makers must pass:
Data recording and sharing
Vehicle cyber security
Human machine interface
Consumer education and training
Registration and certification
Federal state and local laws
Operational design domain
Object and event detection and response
Fall Back (Minimal Risk Condition)
For mutual convenience, vehicles have been divided into levels, based on to what extent the manual driving is required throughout a journey. 6 SAE levels were introduced with the idea of 'who does what and when', where level 0, for example, requires the driver to drive manually at all times, and at level 5 the car is fully autonomous.
Despite being one of the fastest developing tech sectors, the public adoption of autonomous vehicles will take time. The new policy emphasized that more regulations will be incorporated over time, according to the evolution of technical features. Also, the new policy is likely to encourage further public and governmental debates, but the federal government has made it clear it will resist any efforts to ban innovation.
It's undeniable that innovation is going to benefit from the new policy, regardless of how tough it's going to be. The green light from the government and their support was that missing element tech giants had been waiting for. The draft is raw, but it's here, and now everyone needs time to digest the news.