autonomous cars
(smoothgroover22/Flickr photo)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have been slow to react to new developments in autonomous cars, leaving the question of how and when self-driving cars will be adopted across the board largely up in the air. However, it appears that a cross-party contingent is attempting to draw up a new set of rules surrounding autonomous cars in the hope that more progress can be made in the near future.

This isn’t the first time that Congress has attempted to set out legislation to govern the use of autonomous cars but previous attempts quickly ended in a stalemate. In late 2017, the house passed the Self Drive Act, which aimed to speed up the adoption of self-driving car technology and stop states from enforcing performance standards on these new cars. Unfortunately, a complementary bill was not voted on in Congress due to concerns on the part of Democrats that the new bill did not do enough to address safety concerns around autonomous vehicles. Since then, progress has been slow, but that seems set to change very soon. With the Democrats in control of the house, it is hoped that they can address some of their concerns and a new bill can be drafted. 

Over the last few weeks, a bipartisan group in the house and the senate have had five meetings to discuss the subject of self-driving cars and attempt to forge a deal. Auto manufacturers are pushing for this to happen quickly because the technology is moving quickly and without proper legislation in place, it is not possible for autonomous vehicles to be adopted in a big way. The problem is, it’s uncharted territory and there are a lot of difficult questions that need to be addressed. 

Safety is the biggest concern as there have already been multiple incidences of crashes involving autonomous cars. Currently, the driver has to have both hands on the wheel so they are able to react should the technology fail, however, there have been cases where people have failed to do that and have been involved in fatal crashes. Any legislation around autonomous vehicles must set clear safety guidelines and decide whether it is acceptable to produce autonomous vehicles without manual steering controls in the future. 

Culpability in the event of a crash is another big problem. At the moment, if two cars are involved in an accident, there is the question of who is to blame. There are plenty of car accident lawyers who are always ready to help you if you believe that the other driver is to blame and you want to make a compensation claim against them. But who is culpable if an autonomous car is involved in a crash? Is it simply the fault of technology or does the fault still lie with the driver, who should have been quick to react and take control of the car? 

Ethical issues have a big part to play in the discussion as well because there are certain situations where a driver would have to make some difficult decisions. For example, how does an autonomous car prioritize life? A driver may choose to put themselves in danger if it means saving the life of a child, for example, but how does a self-driving car react in that situation? Will the car be programmed to weigh and categorize people or will it always attempt to preserve the life of the driver? 

These are all incredibly complex issues that need to be included in any new legislation around driverless cars so it looks to be a long and difficult discussion before any agreement is reached. The Department of Transportation is currently tackling some of these questions in new rule changes that will rewrite safety guidelines so that they are more applicable to autonomous cars. It is believed that this will pave the way for the release of more self-driving vehicles, however, more legislation is still needed. 

As it stands, no concrete decisions have been made yet and in the lead up to an election that is going to be fought mainly on healthcare provision, college funding, and gun control, it is possible that legislation on autonomous vehicles may take a back seat. The auto industry has stepped down lobbying efforts in recent months, partly due to setbacks in previous years, but now that there is more movement, we may see them increase their efforts once more. 

Only time will tell what the future holds for autonomous cars but it is clear that more legislation is needed if they are to be used widely.

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