The Fuse

Transportation Secretary to Re-assess Guidance on Autonomy

by Matt Piotrowski | February 27, 2017

The new Transportation Secretary is calling on the auto and tech industries to rigorously educate the public about the benefits of autonomous cars while also expressing concerns about job losses from the emerging technology. Elaine Chao, President Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, is now reviewing guidance released last year by the Obama administration in an effort to find the “right balance” in rolling out the new technology on U.S. roads.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) articulated its direction in September, calling for flexibility from the federal government so innovation would not be stifled. Most in government and industry, along with SAFE, applauded the direction NHTSA was taking. The guidance, however, is non-binding. Against that backdrop, there have calls for further leadership at the federal level so a “patchwork” of state rules does not emerge.

One of Chao’s main concerns, shared with many in government and industry, is whether consumers will ultimately accept AVs.

One of Chao’s main concerns, shared with many in government and industry, is whether consumers will ultimately accept AVs. So far, market research has indicated a high dose of skepticism about the new technology. She told the National Governors Association over the weekend that the Trump administration wants to guarantee that autonomy “is a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies, not an impediment. In particular, I want to challenge Silicon Valley, Detroit, and all other auto industry hubs to step up and help educate a skeptical public about the benefits of automated technology.”

While consumer doubt is high now, many experts see most consumers eventually embracing the wide-reaching benefits of autonomy. Last week at an event hosted by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), panelists highlighted the many hurdles for AVs, but expressed confidence that public worries would erode over time.

By nearly every study, the advancement of autonomous technology will significantly cut the number of traffic deaths. “There’s a lot at stake in getting this technology right,” Chao said.

In addition to calling for industry to educate the public, Chao noted the administration is “very concerned” about the possible labor impacts of autonomous technology. As Reuters noted, the U.S. has some 3.5 million U.S. truck drivers and millions of others with driving-related jobs. The American Trucking Associations notes that there is currently a shortage of truck drivers, and argues that staff will continue to be necessary on trucks to ensure the safe transport of goods for the foreseeable future.

“This administration is evaluating this guidance and will consult with you and other stakeholders as we update it and amend it, to ensure that it strikes the right balance.”

Chao’s comments are a positive development in that they reflect confidence the administration is enthusiastic to move autonomy forward but has also identified concerns in the space. Industry and state governments will be eyeing closely the results of the reassessment of NHTSA’s guidance as developments shift rapidly. “This administration is evaluating this guidance and will consult with you and other stakeholders as we update it and amend it, to ensure that it strikes the right balance,” she said.

Waymo sues Uber over trade secrets

Given that autonomy will upend the transportation sector as we know it, companies view today’s rivalries as high stakes battles, and all players are aggressively pursuing their goals.

In another recent development in the autonomous space, Uber’s aggressiveness continues to cause headaches. Waymo, the AV department of Google, has sued the ride-hailing service for allegedly stealing critical trade secrets. Anthony Levandowski, a new company executive for Uber, left Google last year, and the tech giant is claiming that, before he left, he took information from a confidential server that provided designs for AVs which he’s now used at Uber to start Otto, a driverless trucking project. Uber stated that the lawsuit was a “baseless attempt to slow down a competitor,” but Waymo contends the alleged intellectual property theft allows the ride-sharing company to use a shortcut to catapult past Google by taking its years of research and development.

Reports say that besides seeking monetary damages, Waymo has sought an injunction against Uber that could essentially keep self-driving cars from the ride-sharing service off the road—which would be a major setback in the race to get ahead in autonomy. If the injunction is granted, Uber may be prevented from engaging in further use of the intellectual property and may be required to return all of Waymo’s trade secret information. Uber would then have to develop other technology, which could take many years, or purchase the technology from a third-party vendor, which could be expensive.

Waymo outlined more details about the alleged theft by Levandowski on a blog post on Medium: “Our parent company Alphabet has long worked with Uber in many areas, and we didn’t make this decision lightly. However, given the overwhelming facts that our technology has been stolen, we have no choice but to defend our investment and development of this unique technology.”

Last year, Uber’s CEO expressed how important autonomy is to the company and its competition with Google: “The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting in the ride-sharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving car], because if there is not, we’re not going to have any business.”

While it’s too soon to predict the outcome of the lawsuit, Waymo’s legal action underscores the growing competition in AVs, and how talent like Levandowski is in high demand. While the complaint does not specifically discuss competition in the autonomous space, it does refer to self-driving as a “nascent” field “on the cusp of rapid development” and commercialization. It also mentions that the autonomous space is a “trillion dollar industry” and that “growth, profitability, and even survival of individual firms will likely be determined by what happens in the next few years.”

Given that autonomy will upend the transportation sector as we know it, companies view today’s rivalries as high stakes battles, and all players are aggressively pursuing their goals. Going forward, there will likely be more forceful jockeying for competitive advantage and maneuvering to influence the competition through legislation and litigation.

 

 

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