Volkswagen-Led Effort Might Lock Down AV Standards

An effort led by Volkswagen Group to get automakers to use the same sensors and software in their autonomous vehicles might put industry in the lead on setting AV standards.

The company is talking to more than 15 companies about forming an alliance around self-driving technologies, Automotive News reports, citing an unnamed Volkswagen executive.

The point of the effort is to reduce automakers’ liability in crashes involving AVs. If all manufacturers used the same technologies, they could prove they adhered to the latest industry standards, the executive said. This would make the target for liability claims as small as possible.

It would effectively let automakers share the risk that comes with putting new systems out on public roads, rather than having each company put out its own set of innovations and be forced to defend it alone.

Such an effort might even turn a set of technologies established by common agreement among companies into de facto standards that could influence official specifications.

Neither industry, official standards-setting organizations, nor most governments have laid down specifications covering most aspects of AV safety or technology. Until now, most automakers have been carrying out self-driving technology development and testing on their own, as well as in various partnerships with components suppliers. In almost all cases, they treat information about their innovations and testing as confidential.

In addition to allowing car companies to share some of the burden of defending their products in case of accidents, a broad consensus on what technologies to use in AVs could lead to higher volume production of those systems, driving down the costs of vehicles. Today, most Lidar units alone add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a car.

It’s not yet clear whether the companies in Volkswagen’s proposed alliance would open source what each has developed as open source. If they did, all the companies could use each others’ technologies included in the alliance without restriction. This would also allow for comparable tests across all the companies, so validation data from one could be used by the others, saving the massive effort and expense that is often required for validation.

The fatal crash in March in which an autonomous Volvo XC90 SUV operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian sent a shockwave through the fledgling AV industry. Uber reportedly reached an out-of-court settlement with the family of the pedestrian Elaine Herzberg, but the company also shut down all its AV testing on public roads. After a major reorganization and months of lost testing time, the program is just beginning to get restarted.

The Tempe, Ariz., crash probably won’t be the last fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle. While there are still many unanswered questions about liability in driverless crashes, the legal community is already exploring how such cases may play out. It’s not hard to find personal-injury attorneys’ websites that highlight the potential looming danger of AV crashes.

A 2016 analysis, “Automated Driving and Product Liability,” by Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who frequently studies self-driving issues, suggested automated driving could lead to a rise in product liability problems.

Because of the car’s own role in driverless crashes, it’s likely that the AV industry will bear more of the burden of accident costs than the traditional auto industry does, Walker wrote. In service-based AV businesses such as ride-hailing, it’s conceivable that liability exposure could add several cents per mile to travel costs, he added.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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