Driverless cars have moved from science fiction to reality. Today Waymo CEO John Krafcik declared that “fully self-driving cars are here.” The company has been testing driverless cars on public roads around Phoenix since October 2017 Then say since last month or for the past month without a backup person in the driver’s seat. Soon, these driverless cars will offer rides to passengers as well. Mere months ago, some reports estimated that the arrival of autonomous driving could be a decade away.
It can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the innovation and developments taking place outside the Beltway, but some private-sector breakthroughs have tremendous potential to improve people’s lives. Self-driving cars could allow people to live further from work, as they could use that time productively instead of focusing on the road. Those who prefer not to drive would have a renewed sense of mobility and independence. Harried parents could more easily schedule trips to after-school activities by putting their children into driverless vehicles.
In addition to the potential gains in productivity and convenience, autonomous vehicles could help save lives. The number of traffic fatalities has remained stubbornly high even as traditional vehicles have gained safety features. According to a recent report from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were almost 37,500 traffic fatalities last year, and the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled increased to the highest level since 2008. Another report from the NHTSA estimates that the critical reason for 94 percent of crashes was driver error. Driverless cars could substantially reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities, and the recent announcement could mean that they will be widely available sooner than previously believed.
The new phase is a dramatic step forward and the culmination of 8 years of testing and 3.5 million miles on public roads, but there are caveats and limitations to the next phase of the program. Although there will no longer be a company employee in the driver’s seat ready to take over at a moment’s notice, for now an employee will still be in the car for monitoring purposes.
Not everyone will be able to hail a ride from the driverless cars once the testing expands to offer rides to passengers, only those who have signed up for the company’s testing program.
For now, the program will be confined to an area around a suburb of Phoenix. Waymo announced plans to extend the testing area in the coming months and eventually to expand to other cities. The Phoenix metropolitan area is conducive to testing because heavy rain or snow storms are rare, and a less convoluted web of roads and traffic patterns. These other factors could add more complications for self-driving technology. The company has announced it is expanding testing to Detroit in an attempt to increase the technology’s capability to adapt to different conditions.
Aside from the beneficial weather and driving environment, testing in the Phoenix region is more straightforward because Arizona has a permissive regulatory framework. Other states impose more restrictions on autonomous vehicles which would preclude some of these more innovative tests. For example, California requires people to be in the driver’s seats, and New York still has a 1967 law in place requiring drivers to keep one hand on the wheel.
Legislation and executive orders at the state level have created a patchwork of regulations that could serve as roadblocks to the proliferation of self-driving vehicles. A pair of bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, would remedy this by creating a flexible regulatory environment and make it easier for companies to engage in large-scale pilot programs. Companies could apply to test up to 100,000 driverless vehicles, and these tests would not have to be as geographically limited. If a version of these bills becomes laws, companies would also have more certainty that their technology will not be compliant in one state but prohibited in the state next door.
The next phase of driverless cars underscores the need for regulations that will encourage, rather than inhibit, their development. Some Phoenix residents will be able to travel in a self-driving car with nobody behind the wheel in the next few months. If the regulatory framework does not get in the way, driverless cars could be coming to a street near you sooner than you think.
Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes.
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