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No longer confined to the realm of science fiction, driverless vehicles are beginning to show up on American highways, with California, Nevada and Florida already legalizing their use.
With other states likely to follow suit, federal regulators have begun contemplating rules for automated automotive technology and are studying how the technology’s building blocks can be used to make the nation’s roads safer.
That sets the stage for Congress to look at legislating driverless technology as lawmakers begin writing a new surface transportation authorization next year.
For now, executive branch regulators are urging caution in rolling out the driverless cars.
“We’re encouraged by the new automated-vehicle technologies being developed and implemented today but want to ensure that motor vehicle safety is considered in the development of these advances,” David L. Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said last month in announcing his agency’s first policy guidance on automated vehicles.
There’s been no driverless car legislation offered in Congress — so far.
But Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc.’s multimillion-dollar bet on a driverless car has brought attention to the technology in recent months. Google was responsible for guiding legislative efforts in Nevada, the first state to explicitly allow driverless vehicles.
The first license to test the Google vehicles was issued a little more than a year ago and carried such caveats as a requirement that such vehicles only be operated on public roadways with a driver and a passenger present. Last May, the famed “Google car” that can navigate its way around town — albeit with obvious modifications — made its way to Capitol Hill for a demonstration.
While driverless technology is still in the development stage, the work is progressing quickly. On this year’s auto show circuit, German luxury maker BMW said its i3 all-electric concept, set to go on sale next year, will include a system capable of piloting the car through stop-and-go traffic up to 25 miles per hour, though the driver must keep one hand on the wheel.
The NHTSA’s 14-page guidance issued last month suggested that — for now at least — fully automated vehicles on public roads be restricted to tests. But the agency also recognized that many of the building-block technologies for the fully automated vehicles of the future are already commonplace and represent steps forward for safety.
Among those technologies are such things as rearview backup cameras and lane-centering systems that are readily available on many luxury models. Other systems, such as electronic stability control, will soon be mandatory in new cars.