Driverless cars have a legal wall to scale

Many automakers promise to deploy autonomous vehicles within the next four to five years but there are still numerous questions regarding their planned arrival. First and foremost: how will self-driving cars operate on roads that are mostly comprised of manually-driven vehicles?

“There is going to be this huge transition,” said James Fackler, assistant administrator of the Customer Services Administration for the Michigan Department of State. “It is going to be a difficult thing for everybody to get their heads around.”

Fackler said that local Departments of Motor Vehicles and global regulators are wondering how they can help facilitate the arrival of self-driving cars without compromising road safety. They are also trying to figure out how to bring law enforcement into the mix. He added: “You listen to law enforcement going, ‘Okay, so let’s say I support AVs – how do I know the difference between someone that’s drunk and fallen asleep behind the wheel, and someone who is behind the wheel of an AV and asleep or not paying attention?’ The regulator mind goes, ‘Well, now I need to identify the car so that when law enforcement comes to it, it knows that car could have that feature turned on’. Whether it does or not, that becomes a law enforcement interaction.” VINs and/or registrations could be tagged to help law enforcement differentiate between traditional and autonomous vehicles. Other states might choose to add a mark on license plates but the details are still being worked out.

Politics represent another challenge. Fackler said there are some in government who have chosen to ignore autonomous vehicles simply because they don’t understand them. “Our biggest struggle is getting people to understand that there is a transition happening,” he said. “That’s part of the problem. I gotta have you start paying attention now so when things start to move faster, we’re ready to, A: not be in the way but also; B: support the different structures that need to be there to help move that along.”

Seven years from deployment

Fackler said that, in a state like Michigan, the average car is just seven years old. Based on that, he estimate if connected and/or autonomous cars are widely deployed by 2025, it would be another seven years before consumers enjoyed the benefits. Said Fackler: “That’s not a negative. It’s pretty quick if you think about how you went from drum brakes to disc brakes and to how quickly we’ve gone from the first self-stopping car to now talking about mandating it in 2020.”

Fackler also compared autonomous vehicles to the arrival of better road systems. He said that simple advancements can have a big impact on mobility, allowing consumers to commute faster and more efficiently. He thinks autonomy could do the same for mobility, particularly for those who are no longer able to drive themselves. “This has created an opportunity,” he continued. “Today, people [may be] trapped in their house. [But] they don’t have to be trapped in their house, they can live in a different way than they do can today.”

Passengers are waiting

A growing number of teens seem to be losing interest in getting behind the wheel. Fackler blames this on a change in the law since many states now require new drivers to be 17 or 18 years old to drive without restrictions. He said the cost (driving classes, road tests, insurance, fuel, etc.) has been a deterrent as well.

Most recently, driving rates have been affected by mobile devices, which allow consumers to connect with others without leaving the house. Fackler has seen this first-hand with his own children. “When I was 15, I got out of home by going somewhere out of the home,” said Fackler. “Now they get out by going onto a device that connects them.”

It is not yet known if this trend will boost the popularity of autonomous cars but Fackler thinks it has already helped ride-sharing companies excel. “There’s this idea that if I have my phone, I can get a ride,” he continued. “As a regulator, it makes me nervous to go, ‘I’m gonna get in a car with someone I don’t know who doesn’t work for a company’, so to speak, because with the Uber model they’re contractors.”

Invisible advancements

Not all mobility advancements receive the recognition they deserve. Some are invisible to consumers who use them without realising the hard work involved in making them possible.

Said Fackler: “Autonomous vehicles have the opportunity to be just as disruptive as going from a horse to a car but it also might be just as invisible. There might be people like me who don’t use it that often. I don’t think in a given year I’ve used my ABS twice, but no one would think that’s a bad thing. That would mean I’m paying attention. If I only use it once and it saves me from totalling my car, then the benefits are there.”

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