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As autonomous vehicles (AVs) approach mainstream release, it’s clear that new regulations will be required. Existing rules that cover vehicles driven by a human are inadequate in the face of the new challenges raised by AVs—especially in the areas of safety and liability. How will upcoming regulations affect the transportation industry? Here are some of the measures under consideration, and what you can expect to see in the transit space with the dawn of self-driving vehicle integration.

Uncharted Terrain: Facing the Unknown

AVs are being tested in countries all over the world, but the regulatory approach differs by region. Early adopter countries have long allowed test vehicles, and are now moving towards general legalization. While we are still in the very early stages of regulation, let’s take a look at a few examples of how the regulatory environment is shaping up around the world.

Human vs. AI: Who’s the Better Driver?

It is clear that taking humans out of the driving equation soon will save lives by reducing crashes. Even the integration of automated vehicles that are 10% better than the average human driver would result in an average of 3,000 fewer accidents a year. But while automated systems are often perceived as infallible, driverless vehicles are still involved in accidents of ranging severity.

Serious Incidents

Accidents happen regardless of who is behind the wheel, and AVs have been involved in accidents that range from insignificant to major. As recently as March 18, an Uber AV struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Shortly after this event, a Tesla vehicle in autopilot mode collided with a highway barrier, killing the driver. How are events like these shaping the regulatory environment for AVs?

Immediate Solutions: Signs and Speed Bumps on the Road to Regulation

Liability

Perhaps one of the toughest questions facing the AV regulatory industry is who is ultimately responsible when a computer is in control of a vehicle during an accident. Is it the manufacturer, the supervising human or other drivers who should take the blame? Some companies are willing to accept liability: Volvo has gone on record saying they will accept all liability while their vehicles are in autonomous mode. On the other hand, states like Florida have provided protection to manufacturers by limiting liability in the event of an accident.

Legalizing Platooning

One way automation is set to change the transportation industry is through platooning. Platooning occurs when a group of AVs travel closely together and at high speed. The trucking industry in particular will benefit from platooning with reduced fuel costs, faster transit times and safer travel. “Following too closely” laws, current regulations which limit the distance one vehicle may travel from another, make platooning illegal. To address this, governments are taking steps to change these rules. States including Nevada, Texas and Arizona have all enacted legislation to legalize platooning.

Early Adopters: How Will AV Regulation Affect the Transportation Industry?

Taxi companies, transit authorities and the general car sharing industry are expected to be the early adopters of driverless technology. As the public sector continues to debate and enact AV regulations, and traditional and autonomous cars mix on our roads, what can these early adopters expect in terms of regulation?

Will AV Technology Do Away with Drivers?

While many predict cost savings—especially in the taxi and transit industry—as a result of oppertating without the cost of paid drivers, this benefit will not materialize for a while. Many governments are reluctant to allow for vehicles to travel in fully autonomous mode. The few areas where fully autonomous driving (without a driver behind the wheel) is allowed are remote testing grounds, and even these test zones are governed by very specific conditions. For example, even in the Netherlands, the number one most prepared country for AVs, driverless vehicles without a human behind the wheel still must have an operator at a different location ready to take control remotely. Considering the publicity that accidents involving autonomous vehicles receive, it is unlikely that truly autonomous vehicles operating without the input of humans will be allowed in the near future.

A Regulatory Patchwork

Another regulatory consideration for early adopters is the impact of a patchwork of different legislations. This is especially relevant for companies who operate in different cities or across jurisdictions. Platooning, for example, won’t be effective if it becomes illegal as soon as the platoon crosses into a jurisdiction which has not modified their “following too closely” regulations. Furthermore, if your fleet of vehicles operates in several different cities, and each city has a different approach to regulating AVs, fleet management becomes a complex and inefficient task. Having a competent dispatch company who understands regulations across the board, and is supported by the latest technology, will play an important role in future fleet management.

The driverless vehicle is still in its early days, and is not yet widely available to the public. It’s no surprise that the regulation of AVs is also in its infancy. Early adopters in the transit space will face challenges under an uncertain regulatory regime. For those early adopters who understand the risks and are willing to chart new ground, the benefits will be significant.

Image: Shutterstock / Sebastien DURAND