Shifting gear is not so easy in the autonomous world

Even the casual follower of developments in the self-driving auto space knows it by now – the regulatory environment for autonomous driving is as much of a roadblock to surmount as the technology itself.

That is particularly true in the US because, at present, there is almost no regulation at all and what little there is can be restrictive. One notorious draft proposal – in the car-friendly state of California, of all places – would require at least one licensed human operator to be in an autonomous car at all times during its operation.

But maybe, just maybe, a solution of sorts is on the way from the government. The Barack Obama administration has earmarked almost $4Bn (£2.8Bn) in the current Federal budget proposal for a 10-year project to develop autonomous driving throughout the country.

Key to this initiative – in fact, at the core of it – is the development of a set of self-driving standards and rules that will serve as a model (or perhaps more) once the technology kicks in. This will be drafted by the government’s sprawling Department of Transportation (DoT), and like a Camaro barrelling down a freeway, it will come fast. When announcing the initiative this January, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the DoT aims to have the guidelines finished within six months.

It’s a fine time to draft a national framework and not just because self-driving technology is in the speeding lane. At the moment, a minority of states have rules governing autonomous operation on the books that are often wildly at odds with each other. Already, this has resulted in a crazy-quilt of statutes that can be inconsistent at best, and illogical and anti-progressive at worst (like the proposed California licensed driver statute).

If only a smattering of states is already creating a muddle, how will it look if all 50 lock in their own pet regulations? That would be not only a headache for autonomous car owners who need to cross state lines, it would also be a living nightmare for the carmakers and the firms crafting the solutions that allow for self-driving. How will it be possible to put together a sophisticated vehicle, packed with technology, when there are 50 different sets of rules and standards to conform with?

With that in mind, the DoT might use its leverage as the top American transport agency with the muscle of the Federal government behind it. Foxx has implied that his agency might seek to impose overarching Federal rules and standards for driverless driving.

That would be perfectly acceptable to some of the players in this game. Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s well-known self-driving effort, recently testified in a Senate hearing on the matter that the DoT should unambiguously possess the authority to impose top-down regulation on the country.

Sharing this opinion is ride-sharing firm Lyft, which is currently partnering with General Motors to develop a network of self-driving cars. The firm’s director of public policy Joseph Okpaku railed against today’s “conflicting patchwork of local, municipal and county laws that will hamper efforts to bring autonomous vehicle technology to market”.

The DoT might utilise a sneaky way to get its rules and standards into the books on a national level. The states do have the authority to regulate traffic laws but the government is the entity that determines what technology must and may be used in the vehicles sold in the US. Since self-piloting cars are so dependent on the technology that functions as their ‘brains’, the department could conceivably impose rules by mandating technical protocols. For instance, it could decree that all autonomous cars have 3D LiDAR mapping capability, effectively forcing states and/or municipalities to build out the infrastructure to support it. Bingo, a national standard.

The DoT realises that the daunting complexity of self-driving cars means that it won’t be able to draft appropriate regulations and standards without help. So it’s actively consulting with carmakers, technology solutions, and other interested parties in its quest to draft those guidelines. It’s set a hearing for 8 April – an open event in which anyone involved with or concerned about autonomous driving regulation may attend. Appropriately, given that the subject is national law, the event will be held in Washington, DC. Another is planned for California – another highly suitable location, for obvious reasons, although that hearing has not yet been scheduled.

In spite of the current administration’s lofty ambitions and its openness to accept input from stakeholders, the framework it ends up drafting will certainly not be the last set of guidelines for self-piloted driving in America. Technological innovations will play their part in disrupting some of these, while others will prove to be unfeasible when autonomous vehicles actually start prowling the roads.

By far, the great bulk of the work in regulation and standards-drafting looms ahead of us but, at least in the most car-loving nation on Earth, we’re starting to head down the road towards a proper framework for self-driving cars.

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