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Mixed Automation: US Regulator Maps Timeline for Self-Driving Cars

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【Summary】While many car manufacturers are racing to meet the “2021 deadline” for releasing a self-driving car to consumers (some businesses are aiming for much earlier release dates), the full proliferation of the industry won’t actually happen until 2040 – according to Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Original Michael Cheng    Nov 24, 2016 7:13 AM PT

Based on data compiled by Wards Auto, there are roughly 1.015 billion vehicles in the world today with over 250 million being more than a decade old. For groups pioneering the driverless car sector, these figures are important because they would all have to eventually be replaced (or upgraded with new parts) by cars with autonomous capabilities.

So while many car manufacturers are racing to meet the "2021 deadline" for releasing a self-driving car to consumers (some businesses are aiming for earlier release dates), the full proliferation of the industry won't actually happen until 2040 – according to Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"For the next 20 to 30 years at least, we will likely have a mixed fleet of different levels of automation," said Rosekind.

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Reaching Fleet Turnover

The scenario that Rosekind painted during an interview with The Wall Street Journal was a world in forceful transition. During this period, he expects automakers to push the envelope of autonomous technology, as we are already seeing with Tesla's Autopilot mode. As Rosekind pointed out, there will likely be a healthy mix of human-driven, semi-autonomous and fully autonomous vehicles on the road.

Eventually, should autonomous cars really prove to be beneficial in saving lives by reducing human error and improving day-to-day efficiency, the government could ban people from operating level 1 cars. This would trigger the final phase of full proliferation, called "Fleet Turnover" (a term coined by Johana Bhuiyan from Recode), which is predicted to occur between 2040 and 2050.

"Cities may look drastically different. Sidewalks could go away, as pedestrians and cars share the roads. There will be no street parking, just parking garages outside of city centers," explained Bhuiyan. "And traffic signs and infrastructure may disappear — replaced with smaller, cheaper equipment that only needs to communicate with cars."

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Dealing with Voluntary Guidelines

Getting the transition right is top priority for investors and businesses in the driverless car sector. For Rosekind, this means applying guidelines that can keep up with the commanding pace of development from car manufacturers and software developers. Unlike enforcing "full-force regulations," compliance with NHTSA guidelines are considered to be voluntary. Businesses that go out of their way to adhere to such standards set by NHTSA regulators, like the submission of a 15-point safety assessment letter, could contribute to transparency between the two groups.

Rosekind asserted that lax self-driving car policies makes him nervous. He mentioned that officials are worried about establishments circumventing the current guidelines, due to their voluntary nature. But to cater to the advancement of autonomous driving technology, regulators purposely avoided applying tight regulations during the nascent stages of development. The application of "full-force regulations" is inevitable, especially when the safety of consumers is at stake.

For car manufacturers, their main concern is the collection sensitive data and possibly the act of sharing confidential information that comes with compliance.

"If you want everyone to trust what you're working on…we would think you want the most thorough, transparent public notice of what you're doing to address safety upfront," highlighted Rosekind.

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