Why the Government Wants to Make America Driverless


self-driving car
Google Driverless Car

With each passing model year, vehicles become safer and safer: active safety technologies are increasingly more sophisticated and structurally, vehicles have gotten more and more sound. And while we’ve discussed the latest and greatest in active safety, like automatic emergency braking and blind spot monitoring—and even the still-new concept of augmented reality for driving—most of these safety features aren’t standard in all models and price ranges. In fact, as is often the case (from infant seats to zip codes), the higher your price range, the safer you’ll be. But now that features like these are proven, the government is taking notice. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced on December 8th that they plan to overhaul U.S. crash safety tests, and active safety features will be required for vehicles hoping to earn five-star ratings.

Car dashboard and driver

The New Rating System

Reuters highlighted details from the NHTSA’s new 195-page proposal. In it, the NHTSA proposes, “three new ratings for cars and trucks on pedestrian safety, crash worthiness and crash avoidance under its New Car Assessment Program.”

Reuters reports that for the first time, crash-test ratings will not only be based on performance, but on whether or not a vehicle’s manufacturer included crash avoidance technology. This, the NHTSA hopes, will “prod automakers to do more, including to make safety technology standard on all new vehicles.” As of now, these features are most commonly (and almost exclusively) seen on higher-end models, and often as add-ons, which of course increase vehicle prices. But including automated safety technologies in more vehicles will help lower prices, thereby making these technologies even more accessible.

Including automated safety technologies in more vehicles will help lower prices.

Some technologies the NHTSA says they hope auto manufacturers will standardize across the industry (from Reuters): “forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind-spot detection, lower beam head lighting, semi-automatic headlamp beam switching, amber rear turn signals, rear automatic braking and pedestrian automatic emergency braking.” Cars without these features will have a difficult time earning the coveted five-star ratings. The new ratings will begin with the 2019 model year—not a lot of time for automakers to get up to speed.

It’s important to note that NHTSA safety ratings, while run by a government agency, are only used to help consumers easily understand and compare different offerings—they do not have anything to do with legal safety standards. These safety ratings are listed on stickers, which are displayed on windows of new vehicles.

Crushed cars at a junkyard

What do These Safety Features Mean for the Future of Automobiles?

With their proposal, the NHTSA asserts that vehicles which help pick up drivers’ slack—alerting drivers to events and conditions they might have otherwise missed—are safest. And these kinds of automated safety systems are the building blocks of fully autonomous vehicles. So now, with this new proposal, automakers have even more incentive to invest in the types of technologies that will be necessary if driverless vehicles are ever to become a reality.

The NHTSA asserts that vehicles which help pick up drivers’ slack are safest.

And why? The simplest answer is safety. As we’ve previously noted, human error causes upwards of 94 percent of traffic crashes, and it’s the number one cause of traffic fatalities. Automated safety systems save lives, and incentivizing automakers to include them at all price-points will make everyone on the road more safe.