Owens Gifts Autonomous Drivers

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The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today has issued a final rule, all 147 pages of it, designed to roll back numerous Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and clarify what they termed as ambiguities in current occupant protection standards, for vehicles equipped with automated driving systems (ADS). These are specifically vehicles that are designed without traditional manual driver controls.

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The rule amends several regulations regarding crashworthiness, in effect lessening safety standards for automated vehicles equipped without manual driver controls. The rule also exempts automated vehicles, be it a delivery van or service truck, designed never to carry any human occupants, including drivers, from crashworthiness standards. If it sounds like the automated vehicle could hit your car or truck and not be held liable, you’re getting the gist of some of the DOT-speak contained in the rule.

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Call it coincidental, but the proclamation from General Motors’ Mary Barra yesterday that they are in the e-delivery business is certainly fortuitous. What she didn’t say was that these vans, especially if made autonomous, would eliminate tens of thousands of delivery drivers, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Papa Johns included. Dropping the green flag on autonomous driving, how long do you think it will be before we see unmanned brown trucks pulling up to your home or business, and using your smartphone, complete delivery of your packages?

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Referring to the DOT’s own internal findings, “With more than 90% of serious crashes caused by driver error, it’s vital that we remove unnecessary barriers to technology that could help save lives,” Owens said. “We do not want regulations enacted long before the development of automated technologies to present an unintended and unnecessary barrier to innovation and improved vehicle safety.” Let’s follow that line of thinking a little further. If the DOT has already determined that autonomous drivers are safer than you, why should the automaker be required to maintain liability insurance when they know that you’re at fault?

By the way, the rule will not change existing occupant protection requirements for traditional vehicles with manual driver controls, so you’ll still need to have your insurance in order and be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it wasn’t your fault when the autonomous driver hits you.

[Images: Ford, DOT, BrightDrop, Domino’s]

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