The winding road to self-driving cars

By Bill Holloway

This spring, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a policy statement on automated vehicles, which offers guidance for states that are considering authorizing tests of driverless vehicles. It outlines NHTSA’s research program and provides an overview of the five levels of vehicle automation ranging from “0” for vehicles with no automation but that may include driver warning systems, to “4” for fully automated vehicles that do not assume any driver input during trips.

Although fully-automated NTHSA level 4 cars that require no human input are on the horizon, the first generation of automated cars in use by the general public will be significantly less ambitious.  They likely will require drivers to get the car out onto the road before automatic controls take over to relieve drivers of monotonous time spent on the highway or stuck in traffic jams. Edmunds provided a look at what to expect from these first generation vehicles.

Three states—California, Florida, and Nevada—now explicitly authorize self-driving cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes, and according to a recent article in Stateline by Maggie Clark, Michigan is expected to become the fourth state by the end of the year.

Although not explicitly authorized, driverless cars are not specifically prohibited anywhere in the nation and are assumed to be legal throughout the U.S. The push for legislation has come primarily from the tech and auto companies that are developing the vehicles, so they can ensure that later regulations will not undercut their substantial research investments. However, legal issues remain one of the key barriers hindering autonomous vehicles; particularly driver licensing, liability, and the thousands of vehicle regulations that assume a driver will be in control at all times. If these can be ironed out over the next decade, fully autonomous vehicles could be sharing the roads by 2025.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.