NHTSA Deputy Administrator: There’s No Need to Regulate Autonomous Cars

Heidi King, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, claims it’s too soon to begin imposing rules on self-driving vehicles. Thus far, the NHTSA as taken a supremely lax posture on handling autonomous vehicles in the hopes that a softer touch will assist in their swift development.

However, a cluster of fatal incidents involving advanced driving technology created fresh paranoia within the government.

While the argument could be made that those accidents demand a response from federal regulators, it’s also clear the government doesn’t have a firm grasp on the technology. Likewise, there’s little consensus among automakers that have only recently begun discussing how these vehicles should be standardized, and loads of conflicting opinions exist on the matter of safety. In the short term, advanced electronic aids allow motorists to become worse at driving. But, if fully autonomous vehicles function as intended, their long-term safety benefits could be immense.

The NHTSA claims the resulting confusion means it’s too early in the process to make any kind of definitive rulings.

“At this point the technology is so nascent I don’t think it is appropriate today to regulate this technology,” King said in an interview with Bloomberg. “It’s not there yet, but each and every day we are open to identifying when the time is right.”

Deciphering when the right time will be is going to be difficult, however. While automakers are likely appreciative of the agency’s hands-off approach, the industry won’t be pleased if the technology is allowed to progress unimpeded for years, then halted by new regulatory measures nobody saw coming.

As certain safety advocacy groups seek new rules, King said NHTSA is focused on dismantling old ones that could impede autonomous technology’s current progression. This year, the agency issued a request for comment from the industry to identify problematic vehicle standards while simultaneously holding roundtable talks to gain a clearer picture of where development is heading.

“In the grand scheme of things in saving lives, impaired drivers and flawed human choices are still the big problems we need to solve as a nation,” King said.

The NHTSA has held the assumption that self-driving cars will ultimately reduce the number of roadway fatalities. But we’ve seen an increase in life-ending accidents since advanced driving technologies became more prevalent. Data from the agency showed fatalities increasing by 10 percent in 2015 and 5.2 percent in 2016.

Figures from last year are inconclusive, but estimates from the National Safety Council claim little to no change. It accused distracted driving and higher speed limits as the primary culprits for the worsening situation and theorized that advanced driving aids may have helped offset the danger.

a version of this article first appeared on thetruthaboutcars.com

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