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October 21 2016

Tesla’s Self-driving Cars to Test Fed’s New Authority

Patrice L. Onwuka

Tesla has leapfrogged Uber, Google, and Ford with a major announcement this week that they have begun fitting all of their new vehicles with entirely self-driving capabilities.

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, tweeted about the company’s breakthrough new Teslas that drive themselves with no human help. The vehicles use eight cameras, 12 ultrasounds, and radar all mounted so it’s not visible to drivers. Current vehicles can’t be retrofitted but the future models being built will now all carry the technology.

As we’ve been reporting, there is major competition in this space. Ford and BMW have plans to put a self-driving car on the road by 2021. Uber is already testing self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, and Google is testing its fleet on public roads as well. However, Tesla’s plan to have these vehicles on the road in less than two years puts it at the head of the pack for the commercial market.

Tesla vehicles already have semi-autonomous technology in their vehicles built after 2014, but, as NPR reports, the level of autonomy for future vehicles is Level 4 autonomy. According to the Society of Automotive Engineers, Level 4 puts the vehicle in charge of all aspects of driving including determining the route to a destination or continuing to operate even when a human driver doesn't respond appropriately to a car's request to intervene. Most vehicles on the roads right now are at 0 or Level 1.

Drivers have reportedly demonstrated an aversion to self-driving cars, but this may be the wave of the future.

However, the bigger roadblock may be federal, state, and local regulators.

Recently, the Obama Administration made it clear that it can and will regulate autonomous cars. The Transportation Department asserted its authority to regulate driverless technology with the release of new guidelines that include a 15-point checklist and pre-market approval system before vehicles are rolled out on the roads.

Currently, states have their own regulations on transportation and, according to federal officials, will maintain authority over drivers (such as driver licenses, vehicle registration, and ensuring drivers meet vehicle standards). However, Washington will exert top-down control over the design of cars and whether they even hit the showroom.

Wall Street Journal reports:

The software that would make Tesla vehicles fully self-driving still needs to be validated, and the system hasn’t been approved by regulators. The company expects to reach those milestones in time, ultimately leading to vehicles that Mr. Musk said would be significantly less dangerous than current cars.

“It will take us some time into the future to complete validation of the software and to get the required regulatory approval, but the important thing is that the foundation is laid for the cars to be fully autonomous at a safety level we believe to be at least twice that of a person, maybe better,” Mr. Musk told reporters on Wednesday.

One of the challenges that Tesla will face is added scrutiny by regulators, the press, and consumers following a fatal crash earlier this year involving its Autopilot technology:

Mr. Musk expressed his frustration with the large amount of attention received by Autopliot crashes relative to automobile crashes in general. “It does not reflect well upon the media,” he said. He noted that a negative story dissuading people from using autonomous vehicles was effectively “killing people” since the technology made driving safer

We’ll see if public perception changes toward driverless cars, but the biggest hurdle will be Washington in its newest role as chief innovation regulator.

Expanding the reach of regulatory authority over driverless cars the Administration is signaling that the federal government can and will throw its weight around in every new area of innovation. Good luck to Washington in trying to keep up with – much more get ahead of – technology. However, more concerning is that Washington could become a roadblock in the development of technology.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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