A Milestone for Driverless Cars

U.S. regulators essentially took the training wheels off autonomous vehicles last week, clearing the way for AVs to take a major step forward. 

a photo of a driverless car projecting sensors

While progress may seem to have stalled for driverless cars, don't be fooled. U.S. regulators essentially took the training wheels off autonomous vehicles last week, clearing the way for AVs to take a major step forward. 

The U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration ruled that manufacturers can produce cars without controls designed for human drivers. No more need for a steering wheel, a brake pedal, a dashboard or anything else that we traditionally think of as part of the interior of a car. AVs can be optimized for carrying people, for making deliveries or for anything else.

The NHTSA said AVs still have to meet all the safety standards required for cars with human drivers but will no longer specify the sorts of equipment that must be in a vehicle to meet those standards. 

The change will allow for the sort of creative use of space that General Motors' Cruise subsidiary has demonstrated for its driverless vehicles, based on the idea that they will be used to ferry people to work and school in the mornings and take them home in the afternoon or evenings but will be available for grocery deliveries mid-day. Cruise has shown a cargo module with refrigerated lockers that can be put into a vehicle to quickly fit it for deliveries. (Cruise surely hopes that its integration with GM's manufacturing expertise will give it an edge over Waymo, which has led on AV technology but which, as a subsidiary of Google, doesn't have as tight a coupling with an OEM.)

Now, the NHTSA ruling won't change things overnight. AVs will have to continue to improve, especially in city environments, where pedestrians and cars can act unpredictably, and must demonstrate their safety following at least half a dozen fatalities over the past few years. At the moment, despite all the expectations for AVs, Waymo has been operating only a limited number of fully autonomous vehicles (in other words, with no safety driver behind the wheel) in the relatively simple environment of suburban Phoenix, and Cruise has just begun operating a few fully autonomous robo-taxis in San Francisco. 

So, auto insurers won't see their sales to individual drivers dry up any time soon. But no one should think that progress has stalled.

In fact, the move toward electric vehicles (EVs) in recent years -- which will accelerate if gas prices stay so high for an extended stretch because of geopolitical tensions, supply chain disruptions and other factors -- bolsters the move toward AVs. Driverless cars require so much electricity for sensors and computation that all are expected to be EVs. The switch from internal combustion engines to EVs requires a transformation of the entire automotive ecosystem, from suppliers of raw materials and parts up to the OEMs and then out to those who sell, finance, service and insure the vehicles, and the momentum for EVs will prepare the way for the transition to AVs. 

When that transition happens, just don't expect the vehicles to look much of anything like they do today. Cars were initially defined by what they lacked -- they were called horseless carriages. But cars came into their own soon enough in ways that bear little resemblances to the carriages of the late 1800s. AVs are now defined by what they lack -- they are driverless cars. But, following the NHTSA ruling, they can go pretty much anywhere from here.