The growth of the autonomous cars would send ripples across multiple sectors as it disrupts the existing car industry, initiates a new path-breaking development and redefines the automobile industry. The spurt in autonomous cars would also bring a new challenge of effective regulations, as most of the current automobile regulations would be rendered obsolete in the age of AI-powered self-driving. This would mean that automobile regulators would have to frame new guidelines, protocols and safety standards as per self-driving vehicles.
Technology outpacing regulations?
The predicted exponential growth in technologies empowering the autonomous vehicles would pose another problem for the regulators. Keeping pace with the autonomous cars, which will evolve faster than any period in their history and undergo structural changes as well, is a burning question that regulators are struggling hard to address.
The gap between the accelerated technological growth in autonomous cars and vehicle regulations that are unusually slow in adaption would give sleepless nights to regulators.
The trajectory of technological growth is almost impossible to speculate in advance. Technology evolves faster than we can think, so it remains to be seen how it would be harmonized with the pace of regulations.
While this may seem jarring, it wouldn’t mean that safety in autonomous cars would be compromised by any means. Just that the industry would grow faster and change its outlook so soon, that to catch up with them, the regulators need a reorientation in their approach.
Skepticism in public about autonomous cars reinforces the need for regulatory standards to boost public confidence and dispel misgivings about autonomous cars. This necessitates that regulating bodies and agencies would have to seriously relook at it and equip themselves as per that fast-changing trends in the industry.
Barely a fortnight back, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), banned the sale of a device called Autopilot Buddy which disables safety features in a Tesla vehicle. NHTSA is now looking at other such devices or systems that interfere with the security system and eventually circumvent them. Companies engaged in crucial autonomous car technologies like mapping, sensor, LiDAR, have to fulfill strict quality and safety standards. But there is a fear that this may not be the case in the future if regulations become a relic of the past and the car industry drastically transforms itself. Industry experts are of the view that this would be a unique problem for the regulators.
Regulations sans human factor
Other than technology, another considerable difference would be that in the cases of accidents or collisions, since the human factor would be totally discounted, and hence the scenario would be altogether different than any previous one. While this would reduce human-caused accidents and lower the margin of other such risks, but it is noteworthy to ask that can regulations be made solely from the machine perspective, without factoring in any human/ machine interaction or the effect on humans.
Hitherto, at the core of all regulations is consideration about a human, who is also the driver of the vehicle. But autonomous cars would mean there would be no parameters like comprehensive driver experience. Reworking it without humans would be a difficult task.
For Instance, in the case of a driverless car mowing down a pedestrian, what the new regulations would include? There can be similar scenarios like a car moving in a congested lane, or say, in the extreme scenario of smashing itself with a wall or colliding with a group of humans. Such hazardous situations maybe hypothetical but the end outcome in similar cases would depend not on human discretion, but on a machine algorithm. This again is a very difficult area that needs to be explored by the regulators. In the case of driver negligence, the liability shifts towards the driver who is deemed culpable.
But in the absence of a human driver, would the company be directly culpable, or would it depend on the circumstances? In any case, it is high time regulators work on an out-of-the-box approach and lay down the mandatory requirements and layouts regarding autonomous vehicles on roads.
In the USA, automobile regulations are set by NHTSA and its Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Standards.
NHTSA can make new regulations, amend old ones and expunge outdated ones. But it has to follow a procedure and in the future, the process would be slower than the rapid advancements in car technology. As per surveys and studies by NHTSA, more than half of the safety standards would have to be thoroughly changed for autonomous cars.
Organizations like SAE International and ISO are expected to update their rules more frequently and should be open to the possibility of completely revamping them with further evolution of technology.
Mindset change is needed
To say that most regulatory organizations are impervious to incorporating new changes and obdurate in continuing to do things their own way is not a stereotypical statement. But rather the inflexibility and rigidity that hobble new progress have become a recurring feature and a bottleneck that stifles progress. Overcoming this handicap and a change in mindset is essential before re-strategizing and being abreast of the latest trends. More than the inflow of information, a desire to adapt and be dynamic is important.
Autonomous car companies recognize the need for invigorated safety standards, both to create a favorable public perception and to set a benchmark in terms of quality that would foster innovation and raise awareness about the technology that is deployed.
Standardizing bodies in the USA have begun apprising autonomous-vehicle related rules faster than before, which is indicative of its quest to not be outpaced by the innovations in the autonomous vehicle sector.
In the coming decades, it is being hoped that regulatory agencies would adopt a more participatory and collaborative approach to get regular inputs and be aware of the latest changes. For this, there could be something like a consortium of regulatory agencies with autonomous vehicle experts on board.
The mainstreaming of autonomous cars would be paradoxically spurred by systematic regulations, designed especially for the autonomous industry.