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Bloomberg Government: Back to the future: Driverless cars are the next big thing

By Ray LaHood


Imagine a world where you can summon a ride with the swipe of a finger and cars can drive themselves. For many people, these ideas would have seemed far-fetched even five years ago. Yet, you don’t have to summon up images of Marty McFly and his DeLorean time machine: the future is already here. Across the world, companies like Uber and Lyft have taken cities by storm, turning over the traditional notions of on-demand rides. Now, driverless cars promise to be the next big thing in transportation innovation – and they’ll be on a road near you sooner than you think.

Some features of driverless cars are already available in vehicles on the road today: from vibrating seats that alert the driver if he is drifting out of his lane, to cars that can park themselves at the touch of a button, we are on the cusp of new era in driving.

The advantages of driverless cars include creating a more efficient traffic flow (which means less congestion), better fuel efficiency, and increased productivity as ‘drivers’ can spend their time in the car answering e-mails and phone calls without worrying about distracted driving. The safety aspect is also key: cars that can ‘talk’ to each other will greatly reduce accidents.

But with the benefits come the challenges, including legal issues, infrastructure compatibility, and safety and security concerns.

Legislatively and legally, there is no clear, overriding federal law governing self-driving vehicles. That means some states have chosen to take the lead on lawmaking instead of waiting on federal regulation to catch up. In California, draft regulations were issued in December to require a licensed driver be in any self-driving car, in order to be liable for any traffic violations. As of now, seven states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books and 15 other states are exploring legislation this year.

As the reality of driverless cars becomes more certain, the federal government is getting more involved. In 2013, as secretary of transportation, I announced preliminary guidance regarding the safe deployment and operation of driverless cars. The Department of Transportation continues to meet with states and other stakeholders to build on that foundation. Secretary Foxx will also announce further regulatory guidance in the coming months.

Luckily, some federal leaders are looking beyond today’s early prototypes towards the future of the driverless car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently sent a letter to Google deeming that if a car is actually driverless – meaning there is no way for a human to take control of the vehicle – the car’s software will legally be considered the driver. This will have significant implications as companies like Google envision fully autonomous cars with no steering wheel, gas pedal or brakes.

Automated car innovation is moving rapidly, and federal and state governments must be nimble and ready to make adaptive changes to encourage the industry to grow.

Fully autonomous cars will also require that our infrastructure adapt. We’ve woefully underfunded roads and bridges that were designed for the last century, so we are going to need to not only make up for the investment deficit, but also accelerate infrastructure technology so drivers, passengers, and pedestrians are all protected. That means cities must incorporate technologies that communicate with these new vehicles, such as sensors in traffic lights and on roadways.

In addition to regulatory and infrastructure issues, cyber-attacks pose a very real challenge. Security is a major concern, and this vulnerability isn’t just something to worry about for future autonomous cars. With cars increasingly reliant on computers to operate, there is ample opportunity for cyber mischief. Last year, two ‘white hat’ hackers demonstrated how they could remotely take control of a Jeep Grand Cherokee while it was driving on a St. Louis highway. Vehicles will need to have firewalls built in to prevent an actor with malicious intent from commandeering the vehicle from afar.

This is an undeniably exciting time at the intersection of transportation and technology. The promise of rapid innovation and advancement are changing the transportation world at warp speed. But governments at all levels have not shown that they will be as adept at modernizing regulation as companies are at producing game-changing technologies. Our citizens who want to use driverless cars – or other innovations – will be left in the dust if our legislative and regulatory leaders fail to keep pace. I believe this innovation is coming, regardless of how prepared our elected bodies are to manage it, but we have learned to safely manage evolutions in transportation before and I know we can do it again. Buckle up, it is going to be an interesting ride!