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Who’s Regulating Self-Driving Cars? Often, No One

Who's Regulating Self-Driving Cars? Often, No One

A few hundred self-driving cars are undergoing testing on American roads today, using advanced technology to journey down highways, stop at red lights, and avoid pedestrians and cyclists—except when they don’t. More than 60 companies are registered to test in California alone, though just 28 tested on state roads last year.

Exactly how many vehicles are testing, where they’re doing it, and how those cars are performing is mostly anyone’s guess. In many states, companies experimenting with autonomous vehicles don’t have to specify, and the federal government doesn’t keep track either. Yes, the tech is still very much under development, and industry reps and experts say it’s way too early to create some kind of robot self-driver’s license exam. But two meetings in Washington, DC, last week made clear that some believe regulators aren’t properly overseeing the testing of this technology.

In the first, the National Transportation Safety Board met to conclude its investigation into a 2018 collision in which an Uber self-driving vehicle hit and killed an Arizona woman. Board members railed against a system that has left most of the oversight of self-driving vehicles to states, and made the few federal guidelines voluntary.

“In my opinion, they’ve put technology advancement here before saving lives,” said NTSB member Jennifer Homendy, referring to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates motor vehicle safety. “There’s no requirement. There’s no evaluation. There’s no real standards issued.”

NTSB investigator Ensar Becic said the federal government was “perfectly positioned” to demand a more rigorous safety approach from self-driving vehicle companies. It could, for example, provide feedback on the voluntary safety self-assessments that the agency has politely asked companies to write and hand over. It could also make them mandatory.

The next day, during a meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee, senators said they wanted to hasten the development of autonomous vehicles, which the industry says will drive more carefully than their human counterparts. But some Senate Democrats wondered, sometimes angrily, whether the federal government was doing enough to monitor the testing of self-driving cars right now.

“While I appreciate the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles, I remain concerned that humans will be used as test dummies,” said Senator Tom Udall, the Democrat from New Mexico.


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