The Fuse

Federal Action Needs to Keep Up With Technological Changes in Self-Driving Cars

by Matt Piotrowski | March 16, 2016

Self-driving cars have the potential to bring extraordinary benefits to consumers and society as a whole, but technology is moving faster than policymakers at the state and federal level can keep pace with. In order for self-driving vehicles to reach their potential, there needs to be a federal regulatory environment that allows for flexibility and accelerated development.

Self-driving cars have the potential to bring extraordinary benefits to consumers and society as a whole, but technology is moving faster than policymakers at the state and federal level can keep pace with.

A group of industry experts, testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday, agreed that leadership from the Congress is needed in this regard, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as the main focal point. One main issue, they say, surrounds giving NHTSA new authority so it can expedite regulations to allow self-driving innovation to move forward and not get stymied by constrictive laws or lack of government leadership.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in January that he was committed to making the regulatory environment conducive for industry development and large-scale deployment. “We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” Foxx said in a statement in January, adding that his agency is seeking to put together national standards that states can follow.

Joseph Okpaku, the vice president of government relations at ride-sharing service Lyft, told the committee: “The worst possible scenario for the growth of autonomous vehicles is an inconsistent and conflicting patchwork of local, municipal and county laws that will hamper efforts to bring AV technology to market. Regulations are necessary, but regulatory restraint and consistency is equally as important if we are going to allow this industry to reach its full potential.”

NHTSA, in its 2017 Congressional budget request, said that “[N]ew authorities may be needed when they are necessary to ensure that fully autonomous vehicles, including those designed without a human driver in mind, are deployable in large numbers when demonstrated to provide an equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available.”

The head of Google’s self-driving car program, Chris Urmson, said in his testimony: “The leadership of the federal government is critically important given the growing patchwork of State laws and regulations on self-­driving cars.” He added: “Current regulations… were written at a time when a self­-driving car was nothing more than an idea.”

Further urging Congress to take action to set national standards, Urmson pointed out that 23 states have introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation that make it “extremely impractical” to operate across state lines.

Ride-sharing to pave the way?

There’s a long list of reasons why self-driving cars will provide unprecedented benefits for society, with the largest being the reduction of deaths from driving.

There’s a long list of reasons why self-driving cars will provide unprecedented benefits for society, with the largest being the reduction of deaths from driving. Every year in the United States alone, there are more than 6 million crashes, 4 million injuries, and 38,000 fatalities, with an economic impact of some $836 billion. According to DOT, 93 percent of accidents result from human error—many would be mitigated by widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles.

But as with any new technology, regulators and policymakers are skeptical whether consumers will welcome it.

Lyft’s Okpaku is confident consumers will indeed be ready for self-driving cars, and pointed to various market signals. For instance, the explosion of ride-sharing services have made people comfortable being in vehicles with strangers. These services have been able to grow rapidly due to instant consumer feedback, background checks for drivers, and efficient services, changing the overall outlook for the future of transportation in the U.S.—and allowing for a smoother transition to self-driving cars.

Okpaku noted how consumers’ opinions on driving have changed over time, pointing out that vehicle ownership and holding a driver’s license are not as important to Americans as in the past. Citing a University of Michigan study, he highlighted that in the early 1980s, almost 50 percent of 16 year olds obtained a driver’s license, but that number has fallen by almost a quarter in three decades. “Something very real and fundamental is shifting here,” he said. “We are on the doorstep of another evolutionary leap in transportation and technology, where concepts that once could only be imagined in science fiction are on the verge of becoming a reality.”

Obstacles that need to be overcome

While lawmakers at the event were very open to self-driving cars (Senator Edward Markey rode in an autonomous vehicle in the Washington area before the hearing) and supported the philosophy of adopting regulations that don’t hinder technological advances, they voiced a number of concerns. Those include the speed of adoption, liability, licensing, insurance, privacy and cybersecurity.

Louise Cummings, director of Duke Robotics and the Duke University Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, was less optimistic than the other witnesses about the wide-scale deployment of self-driving vehicles based on her research. While Cummings “enthusiastically” supports the research and development of self-driving vehicles, she is skeptical of the current “rush” for quick adoption.

She argues that more testing needs to be done. “Going from automated lane changing or automated parking to a car that can autonomously execute safe control under all possible driving conditions is a huge leap that companies are not ready to make,” Cummings told the committee, highlighting the dangers of operating in bad weather and self-driving cars not being able to follow directions from police officers.

Another issue that has yet to be addressed is the vulnerability to cyberattacks and hacking of GPS systems. Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) and other legislators also stressed worries about cybersecurity, given that an attack could be widespread and cause havoc on roadways. “These new vehicles are computers on wheels. It’s absolutely amazing what is happening,” Markey said, but also asked witnesses whether they’d support his legislation on cybersecurity that would protect “all access points in the car” from attack. The witnesses from GM and Google both noted the extensive work they’ve done on cybersecurity protection.

Cummings raised further concerns that not enough testing has been completed. In her testimony, she pointed to a RAND Corporation study that says in order to prove that self-driving cars are as safe as human drivers, there must be 275 million miles driven without fatalities. So far, Google cars have driven 2 million miles accident-free. “The self-driving car community is woefully deficient in its testing and evaluation programs (or at least in the dissemination of their test plans and data), with no leadership that notionally should be provided by NHTSA,” she said.

More clarity on these issues should come about once lawmakers and regulators finalize federal rules for self-driving cars and their adoption, and then the U.S. economy and transportation network can move quicker see the wide-ranging benefits.

“The technology has the potential to reduce current federal spending pressures for roadways, parking, and public transit.”

“The technology also has the potential to reduce current federal spending pressures for roadways, parking, and public transit …. Over the next three decades, the U.S. Department of Transportation expects that self-­driving cars will play a key role in reducing transit operating costs, improving highway efficiency, and freeing up existing parking infrastructure, “said Urmson in his testimony. “These benefits are closer to being unlocked now that significant portions of the automotive industry are investing in self­-driving car technology.”