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Everything You Need to Know About Self-Driving Car Regulation

Self driving cars were a lot easier when they’re were in books and films. The reality of a car without a human behind the wheel is unsurprisingly difficult. With dozens of companies racing to produce the 21st century’s Model T the US government has released its first policy guidance for the manufacture and sale of self-driving cars or automated vehicles (AVs).

Away from the technical challenges of machine vision and robotics are the ethical and legal frameworks which govern our roads. Over 35,000 people died on roads in the US during 2015. Given that 94% of accidents can be “tied to a human choice or error” removing the human from the driver seat has value. If it works. Integrating AVs with the rest of the human driven vehicles and the chaotic environment that is planet earth will take a lot of work in policy and practice.

For instance, the level of automation a car is capable of has been graded from Level 1 to 5. Level 1 covers simple acceleration and braking, cruise control plus if you will. While Level 5 is full autonomy.

The policies within the document are not binding, rather they’re the government’s first serve to AV manufacturers. The document covers four sections:

  1. Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles
    This section covers the pre-deployment practices of design, development and testing prior to commercial sale and use. Sharing data with the federal government has caused consternation amongst companies racing to develop the best AV. Companies are split on this, Google, GM, Lyft and others have expressed concerns over sharing. Whereas Toyota (who were late to join the AV race) want companies to work together.
  2. Model State Policy
    The US model of federal and state law, presently you can drive a car straight across state lines without worrying about more than the speed limit. Approaches to AVs across the country will be examined to ensure manufacturers don’t have to produce dozens of models and consumers can travel freely. Perhaps reading a book.
  3. The NHTSA’s Current Regulatory Tools
    This section is an affirmation of the current authority’s authority.

    The NHTSA has moved to streamline its review process to keep pace with developments coming out thick and fast. The body will issue simple HAV-related interpretations withinin 60 days, and rule on simple HAV-related exemption requests in six months.
  4. New Tools and Authorities
    As a new technology there will be new tools added to the previous tools. The vast amount of data produced and necessary to get an AV on the road is a point of contention here as in the first section on Vehicle Performance Guidance.

The Trolley Problem

The policy guidance in the report is by no means final. Indeed the real developments will be the technological progress made by Ford, Tesla and so on. Even more so once AVs are put into real world situations. Consider the trolley problem.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice? (Wikipedia)

How will the AI in an AV respond when faced with this kind of choice? The circumstance might not arise very often. But accidents happen. Where will the culpability lay? Whose lives will be saved by the machine?