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Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Federal regulations have a long way to go before self-driving cars hit roads

The current cluster%$#& of automotive regulation is not quite ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century, according to a new NHTSA study.

Google Self-Driving Car

No hands on the wheel? Fine. No wheel at all? Let's dial that back a bit.


Let's say you want to be an automaker. You take a frame, slap a body on it, put some moving parts inside, print out a price tag and Bob's your uncle, right? Oh, hell no. If you want to hawk your cars in the US, you've got plenty of safety standards to meet, many of which are a little behind the times. This is especially troublesome for some autonomous cars.

These issues are highlighted in a new study (here, in full, in PDF) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which looks at the existing regulatory structure and attempts to figure out where they will cause problems for future autonomous vehicles.

Currently, the country has a patchwork of rules and regulations governing self-driving cars. Some states allow them for testing, other states don't. Some states have strict rules on when and where they can be used, some don't. This leads to confusion for all parties involved, and more than anything, it stymies any attempts at treating the self-driving car as a product for the whole nation.

To summarize what is a very long study, autonomous cars that feature redundant controls for the driver won't face too many struggles. However, once you look at Google's self-driving gumdrop, which lacks pedals and a wheel, the law is significantly less forgiving. Automakers can apply for rule exemptions, which NHTSA will grant on a case-by-case basis, but not all exemptions are equal.

In the near future, NHTSA will develop new plans for helping states and automakers that wish to navigate this heretofore-untraveled terrain. NHTSA also plans to hold public meetings in California and the District of Columbia to help shape these guidelines. A US Senate panel will convene next week to talk about the issue, as well.