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Self-Driving Vehicle Regulation – What Does It Mean?

In early September, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill that effectively legitimizes self-driving vehicles for the future to come.

Dubbed the SELF DRIVE Act, this bill aims to set a framework for autonomous vehicle regulation at the federal level – the first step in establishing national standards for testing, safety, and regulation.

Why is This Important?

Currently, regulation of self-driving vehicles on public roads lies solely in the state’s hands – and only 21 states have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles. Most of these state laws don’t share much in the way of standards, with many of them varying in priority, definitions, and principles. Without any national standards for regulation, it can be a veritable Wild West out there for self-driving vehicle manufacturers.

This is one of the main reasons why many big-name autonomous vehicle companies have left the sunny shores of California for the arid lands of Arizona. Companies such as Uber and Google’s Waymo are taking advantage of the state’s relatively lax laws surrounding self-driving vehicles on public roads to test their technologies.

The SELF DRIVE Act

A clever acronym, the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act details three basic needs for federal autonomous vehicle regulation:

  • One governing body. The bill officially gives the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the sole responsibility to oversee specifics of autonomous vehicles, such as vehicle design, construction and performance standards, and other regulations key to a safer vehicle on the road.
  • Full disclosure of privacy. A self-driving vehicle has the potential to gather an incredible amount of data on its passengers: where you work, where you live, and where your children go to school. The bill dictates that all self-driving companies must have privacy plans which a detailed breakdown on how they’ll collect, store, and use all this data – including any consumer disclosure policies they may be considering.
  • Ease of testing self-driving vehicles in public. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) dictate strict design standards in order for vehicles to hit the road – but autonomous vehicles don’t necessarily meet those guidelines. For example, while normal cars require steering wheels and driving pedals, self-driving vehicle wouldn’t necessarily need any of those. To combat this, this bill increases the number of FMVSS exemptions over the next few years, from 2,500 currently up to 100,000 in four years.

What Happens Now?

Now that Congress has approved this bill, it’s the Senate’s turn to draft up their side of legislation, which is then signed by the president. This will require compromise and usually takes longer than expected.

Once the bill formally turns into a law, it’s up the NHTSA to undertake all the changes. This includes:

  • Formulating rules for and standards for vehicle certification – the bill gives them 24 months.
  • An 18-month deadline to create an official process for the privacy plans.
  • Begin the arduous process of ramping up FMVSS exemptions.

They essentially need to form an entirely new set of rules, regulations, and processes for a complex, advanced new subset of the automobile industry. It’s no small task, but it does give promise to the future of autonomous vehicles on the road.