This week, U.S. DOT released guidelines for self-driving cars, a significant step as regulators prepare for companies to bring this new technology to market. Autonomous vehicles raise all sorts of questions about urban transportation systems. It’s up to advocates to ensure that the technology helps accomplish broader goals like safer streets and more efficient use of urban space, instead of letting private companies dictate the terms.
The rules that the feds put out will be revised over time, and the public can weigh in during that process. With that in mind, I’ve been reviewing the guidelines and talking to experts about the implications for city streets — and especially for pedestrian and cyclist safety. Here are a few key things to consider as regulations for self-driving cars get fleshed out.
Fully autonomous cars can’t break traffic laws.
The feds say self-driving cars should adhere to all traffic laws. In practice, this means they’ll have to do things like obey the speed limit and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Following the rules may be a pretty low bar to clear, but it’s more than most human drivers can say for themselves.
Transit advocate Ben Ross points out, however, that this standard will only apply to “highly automated vehicles” (HAVs). Cars that are lower down on the autonomy spectrum — where a person is deemed the driver, not a machine — wouldn’t need to have features that override human error.