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Government regulators putting the brakes on driverless cars

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Proving that one if the greatest impediments to a brand new, cutting edge technology can be government regulators, Business Review reported Monday that the state of California is imposing strict guidelines on driverless cars, requiring them to have a steering wheel, brake pedal, and accelerator pedal. That may not matter, since the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the federal government plans to put the brakes on driverless cars entirely, pending more studies. Then there is the question of liability in the event of a crash, with California requiring from now $5 million in insurance.

The California rules are likely only required for the testing phase, with the manual override going away once driverless car technology becomes mature enough to gain both government and public acceptance. When the feds will lighten up is unclear The Mercedes Benz S-Class sedan has a great many autonomous drive features in it. “The car steers, accelerates and brakes on its own in congested traffic up to 40 miles an hour. On the highway, it uses numerous cameras and radars to remain centered in its lane at a safe distance from the car ahead, up to 120 miles an hour.”

That is as far as the National Highway Safety Administration is prepared to allow self-driving cars to go. States have been warned not to allow such vehicles beyond the testing phrase until the federal government studies the matter thoroughly and then develop regulations. The study may be completed in 2017. Then there will be more testing, more studies, and then more drafting of regulations until, someday, the sale of self-driving cars are permitted.

To be sure there seems to be a fear of what might happen when human beings are taken out of the loop in the operation of motor vehicles. What happens if the computer crashes or if there is some other fault? The fear of an autonomous vehicle suddenly going rogue seems to be very real, at least among government regulators.

However the vast majority of traffic accidents are due to human error. A computer with backup and fail safe systems are unlike to kill or maim quite as many people as a person behind the wheel who might be impaired, possessed of road rage, or just plain not paying attention. A computer will do none of these things. What’s more a self-driving car would provide mobility options for the elderly and the physically impaired than otherwise will be the case.

The technology, therefore, is likely to be ready long before the government is ready to allow people to utilize it. Thus regulatory gridlock will keep at bay a new way of getting around that will save lives and increase the quality of life for many millions. That is the price paid for having a nanny state.

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