Regulators must be shown the benefit of autonomous vehicles

Regulations are one of the leading concerns surrounding the development and deployment of self-driving vehicles. Lawmakers must create and agree on the rules of the road before autonomous technology can fulfil the promise to forever change mobility. It’s a far more complex issue than many realise.

New laws, or a lack of them, could determine when and where these vehicles are operated. If proper regulations are not implemented, it could postpone the release of autonomous vehicles even if automakers are ready to go.

Robert Grant, director of government relations at Lyft, is very familiar with these challenges. He is paying close attention to the fragmented policies currently in place in the United States. “We have guidance from the federal level but that’s voluntary,” said Grant. “Traditionally the federal government has set performance standards and vehicle standards for all motor vehicles on the road but they currently do not have any specific standards that address higher levels of automation [Level 4, Level 5]. As such, manufacturers and others have to rely on a series of exemptions in order to put these types of vehicles on the road.”

Grant added that, in the absence of clear direction from the federal government, some states began to take a more proactive approach to regulating autonomous vehicles. He said they want to attract the technology and be seen as leaders in innovation. “But a lot of them are regulating in the dark,” said Grant. “It’s very new technology. It raises some very interesting questions. Our default position has been that most state laws can already accommodate these types of vehicles so you don’t need to do anything proactively to attract testing and operations.”

Grant noted that a number of states, including Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Connecticut, New York and Nevada, have passed laws or revised existing laws this year to attract autonomous technology. He said: “For the most part, they’re laws we’ve been pretty happy with. What we fear is that you’re going to have 50 state laws with 50 different rules. That makes it very difficult for the technology to roll out in a uniform matter and very difficult to produce cars. Fifty different cars for 50 different states is not something anybody wants to see.”

The rush to regulate

It’s not uncommon for changes in mobility to inspire new regulations. Lawmakers may have the best intentions but they tend to be fearful of the unknown. When rushed, their solutions are not very effective. Said Grant: “Five years ago, ride-sharing, was an industry that barely existed. We saw a rush to regulate there. There were a lot of cities and states looking at existing models, taking those laws and placing them on a new model. We fought very hard to push back against that and we’ve had a lot of success.”

Grant would prefer that the states hold off on implementing regulations until autonomous cars are further along in their development but, if they must take action right away, he urges them to look at existing laws and eliminate anything that could hinder the auto industry’s progress. He pointed to New York, which requires drivers to have at least one hand on the wheel at all times. This is a huge problem for autonomous vehicles that are designed to drive themselves without human interaction.

Grant also wants the states to work with stakeholders – that is, everyone involved in autonomous car development – to ensure that the laws remain neutral and do not favour one technology over the other. “People are coming at this from all aspects,” said Grant. “There are auto manufacturers, tech companies, the Teslas of the world. You don’t want them to look at the field today and say, ‘Let’s legislate just for auto manufacturers’, because that’s not reflective of where the industry is or where it’s going.”

State vs. federal

As regulations are formed, Grant would like each state to retain control over certain aspects, particularly those involving traffic laws, insurance, liability and registration of vehicles.

“But on things like performance standards, and what these vehicles should or should not do, the biggest thing that players in this market can do is educate legislators and the public,” said Grant. “People don’t really understand the different levels of automation. They don’t understand what the limitations of these vehicles are or what the benefits are. So education is, first and foremost, what needs to be done.”

Grant believes the industry should speak with one voice. He said it is finally starting to happen with a crossover of ideas and legislative policy pushes. He added: “So many questions remain but what I think can be solvable is the public health crisis. Forty thousand deaths a year on roadways, just in America – a million worldwide. Here we have technology that can reduce that by 90%. If we have a way to save those lives, legislators should be working with us to get that out there – not against us for fear of some Terminator-like scenario, which is really not going to happen.”


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