The huge potential of autonomous cars is luring many automakers and technology companies to invest in the space. It’s a race everybody wants to win. However, government approvals and amendments of safety regulations for self-driving cars are some very big obstacles.

Companies demand regulators update laws for fully autonomous vehicles

Now, companies are demanding regulators update laws to accommodate the testing and approval of fully autonomous vehicles. This includes the removal of driver controls on autonomous cars.

Along with legacy automakers such as Ford (F) and General Motors (GM), tech companies such as Apple and Alphabet (GOOG) are also investing in autonomous technology. To learn about the six levels of automation according to the Society of Automotive Engineers, read All You Need to Know about the Levels of Autonomous Vehicles.

Ford and Tesla in the autonomous vehicle race

Ford is planning to produce autonomous cars for ride-sharing services by 2021. In July, Ford and Volkswagen (VLKAY) announced that they were investing about $7 billion in Argo AI. This investment will help them integrate Argo AI’s self-driving system into their own vehicles.

Tesla is planning to launch self-driving robo-taxis. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, believes that robo-taxis will be far more valuable than non-autonomous cars. In April, Tesla held its Autonomy Day, during which Musk declared that the company should have over 1 million autonomous vehicles corresponding to level 5 autonomy by 2020. Most market observers are taking this target with a pinch of salt, as Musk is known to set ambitious targets and (most of the time) not achieve them in full.

Waymo, Lyft, Uber: Self-driving ride-hailing services

Alphabet’s self-driving car project, Waymo, has built robo-taxis. It has been testing its robo-taxi service with a limited group of customers in Phoenix since December 2018. Waymo is already operating a service in Arizona. In July, California regulators approved Alphabet’s self-driving cars. Waymo is also partnering with Lyft (LYFT) in some areas.

In April, Uber (UBER) announced that it was working with Volvo to build autonomous cars, and in June, it unveiled its self-driving car in Washington.

Approval to launch vehicles without manual controls

As reported by CNBC, players such as General Motors and Alphabet’s (GOOGL) Waymo were among 90 organizations and individuals to submit public comments on a proposed regulation for changing rules for self-driving cars. Currently, laws require manual controls, and companies need to ask for exemptions to launch vehicles without such controls.

General Motors, for example, requested an exemption from the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) in 2018.

Lyft (LYFT) and Honda Motor urged the agency to recognize self-driving cars as a separate vehicle class. Such recognition should allow the agency to address rules that are written assuming humans are behind the wheel.

Surprisingly, Tesla hasn’t made any comments so far. Companies’ comments will be taken into consideration when federal regulators rewrite the rules, according to the NHTSA. The agency, however, isn’t expected to start writing rules on seating positions until March 2020.

Safety concerns regarding autonomous cars

While companies are urging for these changes, several consumer groups are cautioning the NHTSA about making any hasty changes. Today, CNBC cited Consumer Reports as saying, “In short: for NHTSA to save lives and prevent injuries, there are more important subjects the agency should be focusing on than ‘removing regulatory barriers,’ especially given the robust pace of industry innovation in many areas today.”

It could take a while before comprehensive rules can be written for various safety standards. According to Reuters, “Comments filed by automakers suggest it could take the agency until at least 2025 to complete a comprehensive rewrite of various safety standards.” The autonomous race between companies is only expected to heat up further during that time.

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