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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

US makers of driverless cars must get past legislative speed bump

Bill stalled in Senate as rest of the world moves forward with adopting with new technology 

An Uber self-driving car travels down a street in San Francisco, California. AFP / Getty Images
An Uber self-driving car travels down a street in San Francisco, California. AFP / Getty Images

For US auto makers, hopes of overtaking the rest of the world in the industry's Next Big Thing are riding on a piece of legislation that safety advocates say is flawed and endangers the public.

Technology giants such as Google and major automobile makers including Ford have invested heavily to create driverless vehicles in which control is effectively transferred from a human to a computer.

With other countries already well on course to introduce self-driving vehicles on public roads, the bill currently before the Senate would allow the same to happen across the United States.

Although 29 of the 50 states have enacted laws to allow the testing of self-driving cars on public roads, supporters of the technology believe that federal legislation is essential if such vehicles are to become a reality across the US.

The American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act — better known as the AV START Act — is before the Senate and does have bipartisan support.

Should the bill become law it would remove the requirement for vehicles to be fitted with equipment needed for human control of a car, such as a steering wheel. It would also decree that vehicle standards are subject to federal jurisdiction rather than being the responsibility of individual states.

This would pave the way for manufacturers to start building and selling the cars, given that owners would no longer face restrictions where they could use the vehicles within the US.

With Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao

sympathetic to the proposals, getting the bill through Congress is the last legislative hurdle the technology faces. There is little doubt that Donald Trump sign the bill.

John Thune, a Republican Senator from South Dakota and one of the sponsors of the bill, believes the measure would enable to law to keep up with the technology.

“By playing a constructive role in the development of self-driving transportation systems, our government can help save lives, improve mobility for all Americans — including those with disabilities, and create new jobs by making us leaders in this important technology,” he said.

But safety groups want to apply the brakes following a number of accidents involving self-driving — or to give them their correct name “autonomous” — vehicles.

They cite incidents such as the death of Elaine Herzberg, a pedestrian who was run over and killed while wheeling her cycle across a road in Tempe, Arizona because the self-driving Uber — equipped with radar and Lidar, which uses laser for sensing objects — did not "see" her.

“A lot of well-paid lobbyists from the technology and auto industries are trying to ram this bill through Congress,” said Jason Levine, executive director for the Centre for Auto Safety in Washington.

He said the bill in its current form "provides no oversight, regulation or protection for the consumer".

With the current Republican majority under threat from midterm elections in November, "the industry is worried that a Democrat-controlled Congress would pass a bill with regulatory teeth", Mr Levine said.

“Our concern is this bill is a pro-industry blank cheque to introduce still unproven technology. It does not require safety standards and removes consumer rights if they are harmed by a potentially defective product.

“Let’s not replace driver error with computer error.”

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Despite the bipartisan support for the bill, a Democrat version would inevitably be stricter when it comes to regulations. Safety campaigners would expect provisions demanding that the cars’ sensors demonstrate they are capable of “reading” road signs and markings as well as detecting pedestrians and cyclists.

It had been expected that the Thune bill would be tacked on to other legislation to ease its passage through Congress, but that route has been blocked off, leaving the sponsors looking for other ways to getting the legislation passed.

The big issue faced by supporters of the bill is finding “floor time” in the Senate and the latest noises out of Washington suggests that it is not seen as a top priority by the Republican majority.

With the bill seemingly stalled in Washington, other countries are vying to take the lead in what is seen as a lucrative industry over the next few decades.

Passengers getting on a self-driving minibus at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.AFP
Passengers getting on a self-driving minibus at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.AFP

Internationally, the United Nations is trying to impose some common standards on what otherwise would be a hotchpotch of regulations.

In 2016, the UN updated the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic to take into account the move towards self-driving cars.

Put simply, the changes endorse self-drive technology, as long as the computer can still, where necessary, be overridden by the driver.

In the UAE Mercedes-Benz ran a successful trial of a self-driving car in November 2016, when it completed the 139 kilometre journey from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has said 25 per cent of journeys in the UAE should be driverless by 2030.

In this trial, the driver did not control the accelerator or steering wheel but was required to signal when the vehicle changed lanes.

In the UK, exhaustive testing is already under way with Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, pledging that Britain should lead the way in adopting the new technology.

Earlier this year he told the Association of British Insurers that he expected the first autonomous cars to be on sale to the public by 2021 and predicted that the UK market could be worth £28 billion (Dh134bn) by 2035.

But there is evidence that the public as a whole is rather more cautious about the technology than politicians, judging by a poll of 20,000 drivers taken by the AA, Britain’s largest motoring organisation.

Nearly nine drivers in 10 were concerned that situations would arise which were not anticipated by computer programmers who designed self-drive technology.

Just over a fifth of respondents said they would be happy to surrender control of a vehicle to a computer. Around the same number said they would feel safe if other cars on the road were autonomous.

Elsewhere in Europe approaches differ. In Germany, for example, trials have been permitted //ON PUBLIC ROADS?// where the driver is not required to touch the steering wheel. But the manufacturer is legally responsible for any accidents if the system fails.

In August last year, an ethics committee drew up guidelines for self-driving cars such as insisting the technology should prioritise human life over animals and property.

The ethical guidelines are being used to underpin the country’s determination to lead the field, with German companies holding nearly 50 per cent of the driverless technology patents.

In April BMW opened a campus for self-driving cars near Munich. It expects to produce its own model in 2021.

The pace is being set in Asia. South Korea has allowed testing on 320 kilometres of public roads as well as building a test circuit south of Seoul. Self-driving cars could go on sale as early as 2020.

Singapore has been testing the technology since 2015 and its plans include driverless buses.

China is looking to bring as many as 30 million autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles on to its roads over the next decade.

By 2020 it hopes at least half of the cars on sale will have some self-driving technology — in reality computerised safety nets which would kick in when a driver makes a mistake such as drifting off course or risking a collision.

In Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also unveiled ambitious plans which could see a self-driving car service in place when Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics.