Weekly Brief: US Abandons AV Restraint as Makers Self-Regulate

The United States government would like the self-driving car industry to know something.

It’s that it can do whatever it would like, wherever it would like, whenever it would like, however it would like, without any concerns of further regulation from the US government. That was the gist of US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao’s speech at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, where she unveiled a new set of federal guidelines for self-driving cars called Automated Vehicles 4.0 (AV 4.0).

You can read the guidelines for yourself here, where you’ll find lots of weighty verbiage about how AV 4.0 will “unify AV efforts across 38 federal departments, independent agencies, commissions and executive offices of the president” and how it will ensure the “safe development and integration of AV technologies”. Yet, dig down a little deeper and you’ll discover that the new guidelines leave the safety monitoring of that development and integration entirely up to tech companies themselves, as was the case with AV 3.0 and AV 2.0.

This is great news if you’re a tech company or if you believe in the inherent goodness of the private sector and its willingness to self-regulate and administer “voluntary guidance,” in the words of Secretary Chao. Keep in mind this is the same kind of voluntary guidance Uber was administering when one of its self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian in March 2018 after switching off the Volvo XC90’s on-board anti-collision systems and while the safety driver behind the wheel was watching videos on her smartphone. A later review conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that Uber had failed to program its software to recognize jaywalkers and suppressed the vehicle’s production standard emergency braking feature to give the impression of a smoother ride for Uber executives.

It’s easy to pick on Uber for one mistake but the fact is that when you don’t have to be transparent to federal regulators and the only law you have to report to is your own “voluntary guidance”, it’s easy to make mistakes. NHTSA has said as much and pleaded for the Department of Transportation to require mandatory safety assessments in the wake of the Uber incident. This is the same NHTSA that has asked all driverless tech developers to fill out voluntary safety self-assessments and only heard back from a handful of them.

However, the Department of Transportation, working in tandem with the Trump administration, did not listen to NHTSA’s request. To the contrary, the DOT kept the assessments voluntary (aka easy to ignore) and lined up lucrative tax incentives and intellectual property protections for those companies helping to drive the industry forward. As Secretary Chao said at CES last week: “The take-away from AV 4.0 is that the federal government is all in for safer, better and more inclusive transportation aided by automated driving systems.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for safer, better and more inclusive transportation aided by automated driving systems. I recognize the potential for self-driving cars to usher in a new paradigm for transportation in which millions of more people, including the disabled and senior citizens, can access mobility; a world in which drunk drivers and sleepy drivers, angry drivers and just plain bad drivers are replaced by reliable technology.

I also recognize that, as of 2020, that technology is anything but reliable and that ensuring safety should be tantamount with requiring mandatory safety assessments. For now, we’ll just have to take the private sector’s word on it.

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