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Self-driving car market needs government regulation to create industry standards for car manufacturers.

What’s the Missing Puzzle Piece for Self-Driving Cars?

Here’s a hint: It isn’t maps, sensors, or advanced machine learning.

Autonomous vehicles are a reality. The moment we’ve all been waiting for is here. Tesla, Volvo, Uber, and Google all have cars that can be our chauffeurs, driving us around town and getting us to work in the morning. So what’s the problem? Why aren’t these cars on the road already and acting as our new robotic taxis?

A recent article in PC Magazine postulated what the missing puzzle piece for self-driving cars might be: the development of hyper-local maps. On August 8th, Intel closed a deal to buy Mobileye, which already develops cameras, sensors, and software for many automotive manufacturers. The $15.3 billion deal now makes Intel a serious contender in the world of self-driving cars.

Also recently, Bosch collaborated with mapping company TomTom to develop a software platform called “Radar Road Signature,” which can capture radar signals bouncing off roadside objects. The hope is that the software can register changes to the road, upload that data to the cloud, and other vehicles will update their maps instantaneously to provide the vehicle with accurate road conditions (improving driving capability in the process).

However, the idea of a cloud-based service for connected cars is fundamentally flawed. We do not have the infrastructure in place for all cars from all manufacturers to abide by the same cloud service, to say nothing of the same technology. This refocuses attention on the true missing puzzle piece needed for a self-driving car reality: government regulations.

National Conference of State Legislatures

The map above shows what states have implemented legislation and executive orders for self-driving cars.

Twenty-four states currently have either passed legislation or have signed executive orders for self-driving car regulations, and 33 states have introduced additional legislation in 2017 alone. The issue is a pressing one, as car deaths in the U.S. have risen 7.7% in 2015 compared to 2014—the highest jump since 1996—and traffic deaths have gone up by nearly 8% for the first nine of months of 2016.

While it is encouraging to see state governments taking notice of the self-driving car world, it’s only one step toward the real solution. This process of states implementing their own standards will soon become problematic for car manufacturers as they try to upscale their business.

Traditionally, the federal government has regulated the vehicle and left driving habits to the states. Yet, the federal government will need to play a larger role if it hopes to create a unified network of connected cars. “If you had 50 different requirements for 50 different states, each state [might do it] different,” said Chan Lieu, an adviser to the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. Lieu noted that such a scenario would make building a vehicle to be sold across the country very difficult.

For example, if a car sold in California only abided by the rules of that state, the driver wouldn’t be able to take their car across the country to New York, where self-driving regulations differ greatly. That’s why the government needs to create standards that all states can follow—creating a baseline for these vehicles—in a similar fashion to how interstates are laid out across neighboring states.

Last month, a U.S. House subcommittee approved a proposal to allow automakers to deploy 100,000 self-driving vehicles that do not have to meet existing auto safety standards. The proposal also allows the manufacturers to forego compliance with individual state laws that would impede these driverless vehicles.

Car manufacturers would be required to show that the self-driving cars have failsafe functions and are intended for research purposes, while the states maintain control over the licensing and selling of autonomous vehicles. This measure is the first significant federal legislation that will help the self-driving car market become a reality.

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