Driverless cars: Rush to promote testing through regulation

by Conor Brennan on 17 Jun 2014

The development of driverless cars has seen a resurgence of interest of late. This is no doubt partly due to the publicity Google generated from trialling the concept. But how have regulators reacted to the idea of driverless cars. Will regulation stand in the way or facilitate this giant leap forward in transport innovation?

The ambitious Google project is now no longer in its infancy. As far back as June 2011, Google successfully lobbied Nevada, to adopt regulation which would allow driverless cars. Since then the company claims to have clocked over 1.1 million kilometres in testing with only two minor accidents, both when humans were in control of the wheel.

In this period Google has led the way in trying to convince the public that the idea of driverless cars is not such an alien one. In April 2012, Florida became the second U.S state to allow testing of driverless cars on public roads. California, passed legislation permitting the testing of driverless cars in 2012, as did Washington D.C. The latest US state to promote the project was Michigan, which passed legislation in December of last year.

This legislative reform has led Google to invest heavily in the project. Last month, they reiterated their long term commitment to the project by releasing a promotional video of its own prototype driverless cars with only a stop/start button in the interior. Google hopes to have prototype cars on public roads by 2016. Currently, twelve U.S states are considering adopting regulation, which will allow the testing of driverless cars on public roads. It appears regulators in the U.S. are tentatively encouraging the development of driverless cars, but its growth has been stifled by differing opinions between states. Six states for example have blocked favourable regulation for driverless cars.

Traditional car models with a twist

Europe has also realised the potential for driverless cars and innovation is beginning to pull ahead of regulation. The UK, Europe’s third largest car manufacturer, does not want to be left behind. Last week, Minister for State and Universities David Willets called for reform of transport laws in order to compete with neighbouring European countries and the United States in driverless car technology. In December 2013, the government also offered a £10m prize to fund a town or city to become a testing ground for autonomous vehicles. Milton Keynes is already testing driverless pods on main pedestrian pathways.

Each European member state is racing to take the lead. Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Spain have allowed testing of driverless cars in traffic. Finland will adopt a similar law before 2015. Europe is, however, taking a more cautious approach to integrating the technology, opting to integrate driverless abilities into current car models (which include a steering wheel, pedals etc.), rather than Google’s own prototype which only consists of a stop/start button.

Although the European Union (EU) has funded projects across Europe in research and development of driverless cars, they have not yet worked out the rules that would govern this innovation. They have instead, for the moment, left the door open for member states to regulate as they see fit.

Look, no hands!

The EU’s position was helped last month when the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic, which is adopted by European countries but not the United States, amended a rule, stating that “every driver shall at all times be in control of his vehicle,” to allow drivers remove their hands from the steering wheel. The one stipulation being that the system “can be overridden.” If the EU does issue rules in the future, it is likely to follow these guidelines.

The varying degrees of control a ‘driver’ may have to override the system continues to be the main current topic of discussion. Many in Brussels believe the ‘driver’ should have the ability to override the system and continue driving the car in the traditional way. The new Google prototypes run contrary to this.

Manufacturers lead, regulation follows

For the moment, member states are taking their own initiative in the hope of shaping regulation further down the line at EU level. For example, in the Netherlands, regulation is being brought forward to allow wholesale testing of driverless cars on public roads by 2015, and at a local level, Gothenburg City in Sweden has already facilitated a 50 kilometres stretch of road which permits driverless cars.

It appears Europe is taking a different approach to that being taken by the Google project in the United States – car manufacturers Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi and now Nissan-Renault are rapidly investing new technology which largely sees traditional car models integrating a driverless mode. In conjunction with national and local authorities, member states are now looking to promote these models and bring regulation in line to facilitate the mass testing that is needed.

There are plenty of regulatory challenges ahead for Google and driverless car manufacturers.  However, the first obstacle to reforming regulation and allowing the mass testing of these cars is now beginning to be removed. The next challenge ahead of manufacturers is the type of regulation which will surely accompany the sale of these vehicles on a mass market scale. The EU is likely to take a strong position with regard to the consumer protection and safety of driverless cars. Overcoming this will not only involve progress in technology, but also an extended period of educating potential customers and convincing regulators of its benefits.

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Topics: Driverless cars, Technology, UK business

Conor Brennan

Written by Conor Brennan

Conor is an experienced consultant who advises clients in the data economy, insur-tech, and energy sectors.

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