Legislation that would advance the widespread deployment of autonomous vehicle in the United States appears to have stalled. With development of the technology hitting a rough patch and public perception teetering between AVs being a major breakthrough for society or an important contributor to its demise, any new laws might have been irrelevant anyway.
Outside of major players like Waymo, companies making consistent progress on the technology are hard to find; meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to decide who’s at fault when a computer-controlled car goes off script and hurts someone or destroys property. Drivers don’t want to be liable, since they’re not technically supposed to be the ones in control (once true self driving arrives) and manufacturers don’t want to assume any more responsibilities than absolutely necessary.
Those concerns and more were reportedly on full display during last week’s Automated Vehicles Symposium. Designed to take the pulse of the industry and decide where AVs currently stand, the event seemed to showcase that there wasn’t much to be done this year. Whether it be the fault of companies overestimating how quickly the technology would advance (yes), the impact of pandemic-related lockdowns (yes), the unappetizing nature of the mobility concept (yes), or a lack of effective, well-informed governance (yes), 2020 seems to be a wasted year for vehicular autonomy.
According to Automotive News, the general consensus among lawmakers and lawyers attending the conference (which had to be held virtually) was that ongoing concerns regarding public safety, data transparency and job displacement were undermining any progress that could have been made in terms of policy. There are also gray areas about what rules should be left up to state/local governments and how that’s supposed to work in tandem with a Congress that outright refuses to agree upon just about everything.
From Automotive News:
“I don’t have much money, so I won’t put my money on a bill being done this year,” said Ron Thaniel, vice president of legislative affairs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. “It’s a tough lift this Congress, and frankly, it’s looking more and more like the 117th Congress [which starts next year], as far as getting the bill done.”
Initially, Thaniel hoped legislation might be introduced by late last winter. Lawmakers had embarked on renewed efforts last August to collect feedback on legislation that ostensibly would provide a legislative framework for broad deployment of AVs. But the time frame for advancing a bill likely has passed.
At issue are some of the same disagreements that sunk the AV START Act in the Senate in December 2018. That bill would have affirmed the Department of Transportation’s traditional role in regulating vehicles from bumper to bumper and sought to preempt state laws governing autonomous driving operations. Since federal regulators have established only voluntary safety standards to date, that aspect of the bill concerned Peter Kurdock, general counsel at the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
“It’s unprecedented in our mind that the government is saying it’s not going to act; however, in the absence of regulation, states cannot act,” he said, calling the situation a regulatory vacuum.
Be that as it may, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has raised numerous concerns regarding how the technology is supposed to be implemented and the effectiveness of the advanced driving aids that are supposed to foreshadow it.
The Automated Vehicles Symposium wasn’t just a place for people to lament industry failings, however. Advocates (and lobbyists) are eager to find a pathway forward and have suggested that this all might be a bit easier if we went back and took a second look at vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies. Originally deemed essential for making self-driving cars happen, V2I was supplanted by the idea of cars using their own networks and relying heavily upon their own sensor arrays to make adjustments on the fly. But it’s being considered more seriously once again as self-driving development seems to have slowed to a crawl over the last couple of years.
“We’re not [at the point] where one company can build a widget and the world will change,” said Orin Hoffman, a partner with the Engine, a venture capital firm focused supporting advanced technologies, said during the event. “We need a very complicated regulatory and infrastructure investment before we get to the next stage and that is going to be a far more complicated journey than any of us expected.”
Engine, along with several other entities, suggested that infrastructure must be addressed if AVs are ever to be taken truly seriously by the government. Maven Ventures — which includes AV firms Embark and GM’s Cruise — even went so far as to suggest the pandemic is already reshaping transportation, which could be used to further push the mobility agenda.
Jim Scheiman, managing partner of Maven Ventures, said that mayors around the country need to stand up and embrace the ideas of smart cities and the future of transportation. “If you want to come into my city, leave your car outside the city and take a robotaxi in,” he quoted a hypothetical mayor of his design as saying before returning his attention back to attendees.
“Let me remind everyone why we are so excited about autonomous vehicles. They will save one million lives a year, and help mitigate climate change impacts with electrified autonomous vehicles that are shared instead of owned,” Scheiman said. “There’s a reason why we are moving in this direction. It’s not only the right thing but good for everybody too.”
Sounds like it mainly benefits the companies these people work for, while making life harder for literally everyone else. But we can’t admit that we know what’s best for everyone, unlike Jim Scheiman.