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US takes a step closer to self-driving cars

US authorities have shown a willingness to adapt and waive road-safety rules that have been slowing progress in developing autonomous vehicles

The US has taken another step closer to allowing driverless cars on its roads, with regulators agreeing to update road-traffic safety rules.

In the face of concerns about the safety of the technology, the US Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) revealed in June 2015 that there had been six road traffic accidents involving driverless cars in California since permission was granted to test the vehicles on public roads in September 2014, but it said most were the fault of other drivers.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has told Google – one of the companies spearheading driverless car technology – that it will expand its definition of “driver” to include a vehicle’s self-driving computer system.

“We agree with Google that its [self-driving car] will not have a ‘driver’ in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than 100 years,” the regulator said in a statement.

“If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the driver as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving,” Paul Hemmersbaugh, chief counsel of the NHTSA, wrote in a reply to a Google proposal relating to its self-driving cars.

The move will be welcomed by Google and all the other companies developing driverless vehicles because the current US road-safety rules are slowing down the testing of prototype autonomous vehicles because of difficulties in meeting standards developed for vehicles with human drivers.

However, car developers could still be hamstrung by rules that require braking systems activated by foot controls inside the vehicle, reports Engadget.

California has ruled that cars are not smart enough yet to be sold to the public without a steering wheel, brake pedals and a licensed driver behind the wheel, reports Bloomberg.

Google is reportedly concerned that giving passengers ways to control steering, acceleration and braking could be dangerous if passengers attempt to override the decisions of the computer.

Read more about driverless cars

For self-driving cars to become a reality on US roads, rules about steering wheels and brake pedals will also have to be rewritten, but that could take years, according to some commentators.

However, the NHTSA has also indicated that it may waive some vehicle safety rules to allow self-driving cars on the roads and has undertaken to write guidelines for autonomous vehicles in the next six months.

This means car makers will be allowed to apply for exemptions to certain rules, which commentators have said is more practical than waiting for rules to be rewritten.

The US plans to spend about $4bn in the next 10 years on pilot projects related to autonomous vehicles and formulate a model regulatory framework to govern the use of the technology, reports Network World.

In July 2015, the UK government announced a £20m fund to research and develop driverless car technology in the UK, launched a joint policy team to co-ordinate cross-departmental work, and established a non-statutory code of practice to help ensure public safety.

Business secretary Sajid Javid said at the time that the measures would put the UK at the forefront of the intelligent mobility market, which is forecast to be worth about £900bn by 2025.

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