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Google Says the U.S. Government Needs to Move Faster on Driverless Car Rules

By Chris Neiger - Mar 20, 2016 at 12:12PM

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With individual states considering regulations that could put the brakes on autonomous vehicle innovation, Google has gone to Washington for help. All it needs is an act of Congress.

Two months ago, the Obama administration pledged $4 billion over the next 10 years to promote the relationship between the government and tech companies, and to speed up driverless tech innovation. It was a major win for automotive and technology companies, and it's helping to ensure that the U.S. government becomes less of a roadblock to driverless car tech than it is now. 

But the move still wasn't enough for Alphabet (GOOG 1.66%) (GOOGL 1.77%). Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car program, met with Senate Commerce Committee this week to urge Congress to speed up autonomous car adoption. He wasn't alone, either: Representatives from General Motors, Delphi Automotive and Lyft were in attendance as well.

The purpose of Google speaking with Congress was to try to persuade it to give the Department of Transportation more authority to open up the roadways to driverless cars.

What Google said
Google is concerned that states have too much power to dictate rules for autonomous vehicles on their roads. Specifically, California proposed regulations back in December that would require driverless cars to have steering wheels (which Google wants to eliminate), and require a licensed driver to be behind the wheel at all times.

Not only would those specific rules run counter to Google's driverless car goals, but allowing states to craft their own autonomous vehicle laws hurts Google's ability to test vehicles across state borders. 

"If every state is left to go its own way without a unified approach, operating self­-driving cars across state boundaries would be an unworkable situation, and one that will significantly hinder safety innovation, interstate commerce, national competitiveness, and the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles," Urmson said in prepared remarks.

The company is hoping that federal laws would make it much easier to develop and release driverless cars. 

"We propose that Congress move swiftly to provide the secretary of transportation with new authority to approve life­saving safety innovations," said Urmson. "This new authority would permit the deployment of innovative safety technologies that meet or exceed the level of safety required by existing federal standards, while ensuring a prompt and transparent process." 

What Google stands to gain from this
Google wants the process sped up because it's pushing for driverless cars that eliminate traditional human-operated vehicle controls (i.e., the steering wheel and gas pedal). And this is why Google needs the government to do more. Automotive regulation is already a slow-moving process, but it's even more so when you consider the fundamental changes Google wants to make in transportation. 

One of the major things working in Google's favor is that both it and the government want to reduce traffic fatalities. The wide adoption of self driving cars could significantly reduce road deaths, which totaled 38,000 in the U.S. last year and 1.2 million globally.

It may take a while before we find out whether Congress is willing to expand the DOT's powers to regulate autonomous vehicles, but if lawmakers are serious about saving lives on the road, changing the driverless car laws is a good place to start. 


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