April 17, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Driverless Vehicles Pose New Challenges for Lawmakers, Regulators

Courtesy Wikimedia
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 fledgling efforts by regulators to set parameters for self-driving has led developers to ask Capitol Hill for help in shaping future policy.

Mitch Bainwol, head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last month that it was important for Congress to make sure safety regulations addressing problems such as distracted driving don’t interfere with driverless-vehicle development.

Bainwol warned that poorly conceived policy “will chill innovation and bias drivers toward the use of handheld devices, rather than integrating devices with in-vehicle systems.”

Peter F. Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, also said investment in such technology will be critical to having state-of-the-art transportation infrastructure.

“Our transportation system will not remain internationally competitive without it,” Sweatman said.

If the latest efforts to shape the future of driverless-vehicle policy seem a bit “Back to the Future,” that’s because they are.

A 1991 surface transportation law (PL 102-240) authorized $650,000 to develop driverless technology. A group of nine stakeholders dubbed the National Automated Highway System Consortium used 10 mid-’90s Buick LeSabre sedans and some clunky last-century laptop computers.

Aimed at providing a solution to congested freeways, the development project managed to produce an operable automated ride by 1997. The resultant futuristic vehicle — a Buick that drove itself — garnered lots of media attention at the time.

But, as the Los Angeles Times reported, taking the driver out of the equation didn’t make the car any less vulnerable to failures of old-fashioned auto technology. One of the LeSabres used at a media event on Interstate 15 near San Diego was forced to the shoulder when its radiator burst.

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