Autonomous automobiles might soon be making their way onto U.S. highways as the fourth, and final, necessary piece for their deployment is beginning to fall into place. The first three essential elements have been in various states of readiness for months: Automakers have successfully tested their cars, the sensory rigs, and the computer systems. All that is needed now is for Congress to establish a set of rules of the road (known as a regulatory framework), and progress is now being seen in that regard.
In July 2017, the U.S. House of Representative’s Energy and Commerce Committees voted to send the SELF DRIVE Act to the full house for a vote. The legislation had bipartisan support, and it passed. The bulky acronym stands for: Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act. Its purpose is to permit companies like Google, GM, Toyota, and Uber to test up to 100,000 autonomous vehicles across the entire country. There’s also a proviso to bar states from establishing conflicting regulations regarding the cars’ design, operations, and software systems. The next step was to send the proposed legislation to the Senate.
In late September 2017, Reuters reported that a bipartisan deal was reached by two key senators that would create legislation “aimed at easing hurdles to getting self-driving cars to drivers.” The two senators were John Thune (R.-S.D.), chair of the Commerce Committee, and Gary Peters (D.-Mich.). Sources who were briefed on the bill’s content said it wasn’t expected to include larger commercial trucks. In a joint statement, the two senators wrote, “We expect adoption of self-driving vehicle technologies will save lives, improve mobility for people with disabilities and create new jobs.”
The National Safety Council estimates 40,200 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2016, which The New York Times reported “was a 6% increase from the year before. The 2016 total comes after a 7% rise in 2015 and means the two-year increase—14%—is the largest in more than half a century.” For comparison, the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) Extract Files contain records of 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties over the course of the 20-year armed conflict in Vietnam (National Archives). Because distractions (phones and texting), drunk driving, and excessive speeds are the three most commonly cited causes of the increases in fatalities, autonomous cars could be a solution. Cars driven by computers don’t drink, they can be programmed to operate within lawful speed limits, and they can multitask well beyond human capacities to do the same.
In the same Times report by Neal E. Boudette on the latest statistics, there’s the following observation: “In the fall, the N.H.T.S.A., the National Transportation Safety Board and several nongovernmental organizations, including the National Safety Council, began the Road to Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities within 30 years. The effort places heavy emphasis on the promise of autonomous vehicles.”
TODAY VS. TOMORROW
There’s a significant difference between the autonomous cars produced today and those that could be allowed on the road with the passage of new SELF DRIVE legislation. There are five defined levels of automotive autonomy (see table below). Car manufacturers, along with companies like Alphabet (Google), Uber, and Lyft, have been pressing Congress to permit driverless testing on public roads, and to do this they say full autonomous testing requires vehicles without backup controls for passengers.
The Senate version of the SELF DRIVE Act would allow companies to sell up to 15,000 autonomous cars without steering wheels and pedals per car maker in the first year. The self-driving cars produced today must have these backup driver controls in place. The car makers also are asking the federal government to include assurance that states won’t be able to prohibit autonomous cars and that the safety regulations will be written at the federal level. If, after three years, the record for the autonomous cars without controls is found to be as safe as the current autonomous with backup controls, the bill would allow up to 80,000 by year three.
A self-driving car without steering wheel and foot controls would require a certified Level 5 autonomy. We are probably two to five years away from that goal. The only commercial automobile with anything close is the Audi A8 with a Level 3 self-driving capability. Availability for this luxury sedan was announced in July 2017. Level 3 is a major step up from Level 2, but other companies like Ford, Tesla, and Google have said they will probably skip Level 3 and work toward Level 4, which is almost within cruising distance of the ultimate end game. Level 5 offers a digital chauffeur and seats all facing each other.
In its coverage of the Senate bill, the Detroit Free Press offers some insight into future timelines when we might expect to see these vehicles on the road. Todd Spangler cites Business Insider’s claim that there are almost 40 car companies testing self-driving cars in California today, including BMW, Honda, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz alongside the computer giants Google and Apple. Spangler quotes Senator Peters, who sees a fast-approaching horizon: “The most important part of this legislation is it allows for innovation. This is cutting-edge technology that is advancing extremely fast. It’s going to happen—it’s a matter of a few years.” He implored Congress to act quickly on the bill, “so that American manufacturers know what is—and what is not—expected of them as they try to win what has become a global competition while at the same time balancing safety concerns.”
The negotiations in the Senate continue with unions and insurance companies in the middle of the more heated discussions. Among the issues delaying the final vote are the conflicts over whether to allow autonomous commercial trucks and the legal wrangles involving self-driving lawsuits.