In many people's minds, the reality of a self-driving car is still a ways off. However, it’s probably a lot closer than many people want to admit. The U.S. House just recently approved a wide-ranging bill that should speed up self-driving car development, testing, and proliferation. The new bill would put the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in charge of autonomous car regulations, which means it would eliminate much of the issues car manufacturers are fighting at the state level.
The bill would allow automakers to make and deploy up to 25,000 self-driving vehicles for testing that don’t have to meet existing safety standards. From there the cap of vehicles allowed would jump to 100,000 over the course of three years. The bill also instructs the NHTSA to create new safety standards specific to self-driving cars.
"With this legislation, innovation can flourish without the heavy hand of government," Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Bob Latta said of the bill. Latta also said, “U.S. companies are investing major resources in the research and development of this tech and should not be held up by regulatory barriers.” What’s surprising about the bill is that it had bipartisan support. Despite a few people who were worried about the safety implications, both Republicans and Democrats were in favor of the bill. Now it will go to the U.S. Senate where it will face more scrutiny.
While this seems like good news for automakers some are nervous about the state of the NHTSA, and its ability to perform the huge regulatory task associated with self-driving cars. The NHTSA still has no permanent director, and the President has not yet nominated anyone for the position. Without permanent leadership, some wonder if it’s up to the task of writing new safety rules that will govern how self-driving cars can be built and operated on public roads. In the bills current form, it places this task in the NHTSA’s purview.
The bill comes at an interesting time. In 2015, U.S. road deaths jumped 7.7 percent, according to Reuters. That’s the most the rate has gone up since 1966. The NHTSA states that human error is the cause of 94 percent of car accidents in the U.S. The idea is that self-driving cars could eliminate or at least reduce this number, and this would save the $836 billion in economic losses that are sustained every year, according to Reuters.
Self-driving car technology still has a long way to go before it is able to reduce deaths and save society billions of dollars, but with more support from lawmakers, a fully autonomous vehicle that makes no mistakes might be closer than you think. Tesla, Ford, Volvo, Waymo, Toyota, and basically every other major automaker and tech company have plans to build fully autonomous vehicles in the future. With proposals like this getting through the U.S. House, it seems the constant pressure on lawmakers by automotive and technology companies is working.