Self Drive Regulation

 In Compliance, Self-Drive Vehicles

I spent this afternoon watching a Senate hearing on self-drive. Ten senators* and five witnesses** addressing technical and regulatory questions arising from an innovation with a surprisingly low-profile, but highly disruptive potential.

The senate sees self-drive looming in our rearview mirror bearing gifts. Politically welcome gifts such as fewer traffic fatalities, reduced traffic congestion, increased ride-time productivity, improved energy efficiency, reduced need for parking space, and improved mobility for seniors and the disabled. The senate also recognizes that self-drive will raise issues that must be addressed such as product safety, liability and risk shifting, cyber hacking and data privacy.

The main takeaway from the hearing is that the senate won’t be taking a laissez-faire approach to self-drive. The recent string of regulatory and product safety debacles (GM’s ignition switch, VW’s emissions, and Takata’s airbag aggressivity) quashed any doubt there may have been about self-drive regulation. It will be heavily regulated. But the senate knows it walks a fine line with regulatory oversight. Allowing the states to proceed with a patchwork of inconsistent state regulations could impede testing and innovation and allow America to fall behind China, Europe, Japan and Korea. NHTSA must promulgate a coherent set of rules, post haste. One witness (Cummings) stated unequivocally that NHTSA (at least in its current form) isn’t up to the task. The senate is between a rock and a hard place. NHTSA has to get some rules in place or America will be at a disadvantage compared to Europe and Asia, but NHTSA doesn’t have enough engineers (or the right kind of engineers). Maybe that is one reason that Obama recently called on lawmakers to spend $4 billion on self-drive development.

Most of the panel (other than Delphi) was dismissive about retrofitting the existing fleet of cars. Lyft is understandably focused on ride-sharing as the best way to acclimate the public to self-drive. They point out that it will avoid sticker shock for the expensive first generation of self-drive cars. GM’s recent investment in Lyft comes as no surprise and ditto Google’s $250 million investment in Uber from August 2013.

In response to Thune’s question about how long it will be before self-drive is ready to roll, Google, GM, Delphi, and Lyft were all in agreement that we’re nearly there – maybe a couple of years out. They’ve all had their feet on the development accelerator for some time and are ready to rumble, but Dr. Cummings (Duke) has reservations and is reaching for the brake. She’s concerned that widespread use of self-drive before the wrinkles have been ironed out, will ultimately slow its acceptance because society will react poorly to the inevitable fatal accidents. Specifically, she’s concerned about self-drive in inclement weather, recognition of human gestures, and vulnerability to hacking. Both intentional hacking and inadvertent interruption caused by, among other things, GPS jammers already carried by many cars.

A number of topics didn’t get the attention I thought they would. To name a few, the impact on driving jobs, the potential for increased urban sprawl, shared use versus individual ownership, the role of infrastructure and the role of place (developed versus developing nations and regional adoption models).

The senate will be having more hearings on this topic no doubt.

*John Thune(R-SD), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Dean Heller (R-NV), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Gary Peters (D-MI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Steve Daines (R-MT), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).

**Chris Urmson (Google), Mike Ableson (GM), Glen DeVos (Delphi), Joseph Okpaku (Lyft) and Missy Cummings (Duke University).

Also published in LinkedIn.