Outdated Safety Regulations Threaten Autonomous Vehicles
Self-driving cars are quickly becoming a reality on American roads. Many people are optimistic about this change, hoping that it will make the roads safer for everyone by eliminating dangers associated with distracted driving, drunk driving, and driver error.
However, the speed with which the technology is developing is outpacing the speed at which our laws can adapt to address these changes. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly half of current federal auto regulations are potentially hindering the advance of autonomous vehicle technologies.
One way that the federal government could begin to bring its regulations up to speed is through a single standard adoption proposal in the House and Senate’s self-driving car bills. Whenever a technical standard that is incorporated into auto safety regulations is revised, the Department of Transportation (DOT) could either adopt the new standard by amending all relevant regulations to fit, or explain why the standard is being rejected in those other relevant regulations. This is a requirement that would have to be imposed on the DOT, which promulgates the regulations, by Congress.
Changing Technologies and Outdated Standards
It is longstanding practice that auto regulations are informed by agencies outside the government that hold particular technical expertise, since government officials are not experts in engineering or vehicle safety.
Recently, two new laws have been proposed that acknowledge that the federal government should continuously update its definition as to what constitutes an autonomous vehicle. The bills propose that the standard developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) be used in the regulations, and that it is modified every time that the SAE revises its standard.
However, the SAE definition of an autonomous vehicle is only one standard that is used in many auto safety regulations. In total, there are 257 different auto safety standards, most of which were articulated nearly thirty years ago, and are seriously out of line with current technologies.
Technology Hampered by Outdated Regulations
One example that illustrates how outdated regulations are inhibiting the progress of autonomous vehicle technology is the current situation with adaptive driving beam (ADB) headlamps. These headlamps include a camera that can detect oncoming traffic, helping drivers that could otherwise be temporarily blinded by glare, by lowering the brightness of the LED bulbs accordingly. This technology has long been common in both Japan and in Europe, but is not even available in the United States.
The reason this tech is not available in the United States is because we are saddled with obsolete regulations that require all headlights to specifically have both high and low-beam settings. This regulation also negates the possibility that our cars can have automatic emergency flasher technology. This would allow self-driving cars to indicate that they are a hazard, perhaps because they are stalled in a high traffic area, for example.
The enactment of substantive regulations can take ten years or longer. The DOT has stated that it is working on updating many of its regulations, including the high and low-beam setting requirement.
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