Driverless Car Guidance

March 31, 2016

During an event hosted by Bloomberg Government on Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would issue guidelines for autonomous vehicles by mid-summer. He acknowledged the importance of developing a cohesive federal framework in order to encourage the development and sale of self-driving cars.

Foxx emphasized that the Department of Transportation wouldn’t necessarily go through the lengthy, formal rule-making process — a sentiment that underscores the challenges for federal regulators in balancing safety concerns with the desire to swiftly bring new technology to the market.

“One of the challenges is not to be caught flat-footed with this technology coming into existence and to be part of the thought process,” Foxx said. “I’m not suggesting that we’re going to put a rule forward on this, but starting to lay a foundation so people have a sense for how the federal government is going to approach the issue.”

Companies have been racing to build autonomous vehicles but currently there are no blanket federal laws governing self-driving cars. Foxx said releasing federal guidance would help shed light on which aspects of regulation should be uniform across the country and which could be done on a state-by-state basis, in order to avoid having a messy patchwork of policies. He also expressed a desire to lay the groundwork before the cars are available to the masses, unlike with drones, which came to market prior to regulations being put in place.

Foxx's timing is good because self-driving cars are already finding it hard to 'read' the nation's roads.

According to Reuters, Volvo's North American CEO, Lex Kerssemakers, lost his cool as the automaker's semi-autonomous prototype sporadically refused to drive itself during a press event at the Los Angeles Auto Show. "It can't find the lane markings!" Kerssemakers griped to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was at the wheel. "You need to paint the bloody roads here!"

An estimated 65 percent of U.S.. roads are in poor condition, according to the U.S.. Department of Transportation, with the transportation infrastructure system rated 12th in the World Economic Forum's 2014-2015 global competitiveness report. Poor markings and inconsistent signage are challenging car makers including Tesla, Volvo, Mercedes and Audi who are finding their self-driving vehicles get confused by faded lane markers, damaged or noncompliant signs or lights, and the many quirks of a roadway infrastructure managed by thousands of state and local bureaucracies.

"If the lane fades, all hell breaks loose," said Christoph Mertz, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. "But cars have to handle these weird circumstances and have three different ways of doing things in case one fails." Even something as simple as how traffic lights are configured - do you want them vertical or horizontal - gives the driverless cars pause.

The U.S.. Department of Transportation's "Smart City Challenge," a competitive grant program, will offer up to $40 million this summer to help one city integrate new technologies, which could include infrastructure for self-driving cars.

For a terrific graphic explanation showing how self-driving cars read the road, go to Alexandria Sage's article "Where's the Lane?".