Earlier on today, Californian electric automaker Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] announced the official rollout of its highly-anticipated version 7.0 vehicular software, enabling autonomous (or autopilot) functionality on two-thirds of all Tesla cars ever made.
But while Tesla is among some of the first automakers to offer truly self-driving cars, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk was careful to point out that despite the autosteer and auto lane change functionality now offered on every hardware-equipped Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X, the driver of the car would remain liable were any accidents involving autopilot software to take place.
Not so for Swedish automaker Volvo, which announced last week at a conference at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC that it is so confident of its own autonomous driving program that it would accept full liability for any accidents involving any Volvo cars operating in autonomous driving mode.
The promise, made by Volvo president and CEO Håkan Samuelsson, was part of an important conference held in the nation’s capital to discuss the future of autonomous vehicles, specifically with reference to the U.S.
During his presentation, Samuelsson praised the U.S. for being the most progressive country in the world when it came to autonomous driving development, but warned those in attendence that the country could fall behind others if it failed to set up a national framework of Federal rules for autonomous vehicles.
Currently, the Federal government has not published any steadfast rules regarding the testing or operation of autonomous vehicles. Instead, independent states have developed their own guidelines and regulations, leading to a mishmash of different regulations which automakers must comply with in order to operate autonomous vehicles.
Of the fifty states in the union, only a handful — California, Nevada, Florida, and Michigan — permit the testing of autonomous vehicles on their roads. Parts of Texas and Washington, DC also allow autonomous vehicle testing, but without a nationwide set of rules governing autonomous vehicle operation, moving beyond this point is going to be hard, Samuelsson explained.
“The US risks losing its leading position due to the lack of Federal guidelines for the testing and certification of autonomous vehicles,” he said. “Europe has suffered to some extent by having a patchwork of rules and regulations. It would be a shame if the U.S. took a similar path to Europe in this crucial area.”
“The absence of one set of rules means car makers cannot conduct credible tests to develop cars that meet all the different guidelines of all 50 US states,” he continued in his official statement. “If we are to ensure a smooth transition to autonomous mobility then together we must create the necessary framework that will support this.”
While not every automaker has a vehicle ready for market capable of autonomous driving and even automakers like Tesla admit its autopilot software is still very much in ‘public beta,’ there’s a case to be made for setting up guidelines sooner rather than later.
Indeed, without a federal framework, automakers are very much developing autonomous vehicle technology in the dark. At the moment, each automaker is developing their own unique autonomous vehicle technology rather than following a single set of acceptance criteria governing vehicle operation, failsafes, and intra-vehicular communication protocols.
With cars like the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X now offering at least partial autonomous driving capabilities, we think it won’t be long before Volvo and other automakers get their wish as lawmakers and the insurance industry struggle to catch up with the technology curve.
We may have the technology, but as others have said before, the wheels of government turn very, very slowly.
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