While self-driving cars are all the rage among the automotive industry these days, there are problems related to how companies can test and conduct research with such vehicles. Not only are laws and regulations hazy on the matter, with each state and city having differing and conflicting rules, transportation officials remain slow in developing a regulatory framework to be used to conduct tests.
Some researchers have been forced to construct their own city wherein they may be able to run self-driving vehicles through real life traffic and conditions. Other companies and teams simply limit themselves to areas where regulations allow testing and research. To that end, most live experiments are conducted in the United States.
That may soon change, thanks to an island from the British Islands. In the Isle of Man, an island the size of Chicago boasting a population close to 90,000, bureaucrats are conducting discussions with automobile companies to implement the needed changes to laws and regulations to transform the country into a hub for self-driving cars.
Phil Gawne, the transportation minister on the Isle of Man, is leading the project to lure companies to make fully self-driving cars in the island. “We like to be innovative on the island,” Gawne said. “We like also to be independent. This helps both those areas in terms of our international image and reputation.”
The needed adjustments could be decided upon and implemented as soon as early summer, a shorter timeline compared to the sluggish pace of larger countries.
An added bonus is the fact that the government on the island is willing to work with the companies on the regulations in contrast to Google's recent displeasure over what it perceives as onerous regulations on its self-driving car experiment.
The project is a win-win for both the officials of the island and company executives. The island is generally unable to afford to develop new transit systems on its own, but investments from automobile companies into the local infrastructure would solve this problem. In return, the companies are able to get away from lumbering bureaucracies and have an ideal testing hub for public trials of autonomous vehicles in the small island.
NEW TECH, NEW QUESTIONS
Considering that the project is preliminary, the Isle of Man's government has set up a group to evaluate the merits of the technology and determine the necessary changes to laws and incentives to attract companies. Gawne states that a proposal will be finalized within a month and could be implemented in two to three months.
But other experts remain cautious on whether the endeavor would be enough to change people's minds about self-driving cars. After all, a small island is different from that of a bustling metropolis.
Thilo Koslowski, an autonomous-vehicle analyst at Gartner, explained to The Washington Post that, while the companies could certainly conduct research on the small island, commercial release of the technology would likely be done in a mainland city.
“That will be the proof in the pudding, to show these technologies are reliable in a real-world environment where most people would come to see those cars,” Koslowski said.
Other issues remain, such as how would an autonomous car decide what to do in case of an unavoidable accident. There's also the fact that there is still no appropriate safety standard for such vehicles or any idea of who will be responsible for actions undertaken by the code behind the cars.
Nonetheless, all these questions are moot if the technology doesn't even take off. If Isle of Man does decide to pursue the project, it would bring us a long way towards developing viable self-driving cars.